Hot dang! That crazy basket Michael Mackenzie ends up in the diddly when he reviews The Big Racket, another 1970s poliziotteschi offering from that son of a gun Enzo G. Castellari.
Overflowing with testosterone, The Big Racket (known as Il Grande Racket in its native Italy) is a gritty and rather effective study of violence and despair. As with its predecessor, Street Law, director Enzo G. Castellari once again tackles the subject of masculine rage and the lengths men will go to when they have hit rock bottom. Even if it is ultimately less satisfying than Street Law, it retains many of its strengths and once again affirms Castellari’s status as a force to be reckoned with in the poliziotteschi arena.
A small town near Rome is in the grip of a vicious gang of racketeers. Demanding protection money and extracting it through increasingly violent means if the locals don’t pay up, the gang members are organised and ruthless, and have friends in high places. However, when they cross paths with dedicated police inspector Nico Palmieri (Fabio Testi), they get more than they bargained for. Gathering together a desperate band of local men who have felt the wrath of the gang, including Pepe (Vincent Gardenia), a slick petty thief, and Luigi (Renzo Palmer), a restaurant owner whose young daughter took her own life after being gang-raped by the racketeers, Palmieri vows to put a stop to the racket, even if it means working outside the confines of the law.
Once again, Castellari has the basics of the genre down pat. He stages the action deftly, resulting in some extremely effective set-pieces, the standout of which is undoubtedly an early run-in with the racket which results in Palmieri’s car being tossed down a cliffside. The film is infused with an atmosphere of simmering violence that threatens to erupt at any moment, and when it does, it is often horrifying in its intensity (the scenes in which the racketeers threaten, then abduct and rape Stefania, played by the director’s own daughter, Stefania Girolami, are genuinely unsettling). All of this is captured in the same grungy, hand-held style as Castellari’s other crime films which, while lacking the visual grandeur of the gialli that were so popular a scant few years earlier, is entirely suited to the subject matter and overall tone.
What makes the film inferior to Street Law can be summed up quite succinctly in terms of screenplay problems. Whereas Street Law concentrated on the personal drive for vengeance of Franco Nero’s character, Antonelli, devoting almost its entire running time to his quest, it’s rather difficult to understand just what sort of a stake Palmieri has in the events of The Big Racket. It’s easy to see that he’s the sort of cop who cares deeply about his vocation, and it’s true that, early on, he is hospitalised by the gang, but even so, it’s difficult to see him as anything other than an outsider. The plot structure is less than ideal, too, with Palmieri not actually assembling his gang of renegades until 70 minutes have passed. Too much attention is paid to the build-up, and while Castellari certainly does a very effective job of establishing the racketeers’ ruthlessness, it does drag in places, as the film seems to merely be treading water until Palmieri finally decides to take the law into his own hands.
It also must be said that Fabio Testi doesn’t even come close to matching the sheer intensity of Franco Nero’s performance. Testi definitely has a certain screen presence of his own, but it is of the quieter, more restrained variety, and whereas Nero always threw himself completely into every role he embodied, I get the sense that Testi is holding back. Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t provide his own voice in the English dub (and, unlike all of Castellari’s other films, this one was originally shot in Italian rather than English), or maybe it’s because he always appears too clean-cut, even when lying on a hospital bed with a broken wrist and his neck in a brace. Regardless, though, he gives an absolutely fine performance, and he is ably matched by, among others, Oscar nominee Vincent Gardenia as a smooth-tongued thief that Palmieri recruits to go undercover with the racket.
It has its faults, and it’s probably the weakest of the three Castellari films released by Blue Underground in the last month, but there is still plenty for fans of the poliziotteschi cycle to appreciate in The Big Racket. With its ruthless portrayal of mob violence and vigilante justice, it makes up for its narrative shortcomings with its sheer lack of restraint and is a solid addition to the genre.
Like its partners and crime, Street Law and The Heroin Busters, The Big Racket arrives on DVD courtesy of Blue Underground with an edge enhanced, filtered anamorphic transfer, which preserves the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio but has a rather unsightly harsh look to it and lacks fine detail. By all accounts it’s a step up from Vipco’s UK release (which was non-anamorphic and shorn of several seconds of footage from a violent rape scene), but it could have been so much better.
The only audio track provided, as per usual, is an English mono dub in Dolby Digital 2.0. This is annoying for two reasons. Firstly, as mentioned above, the film was shot in Italian, due to Fabio Testi’s nervousness with speaking English. The lip sync is generally not bad, but it’s clear that the actors aren’t speaking English, which detracts somewhat from the overall atmosphere. The second problem is that this dub has been subjected to some of the most puritanical swearword substitution I have ever had the (mis)fortune to hear. Hardened criminals talk about being “in the diddly”, a man in the heat of battle calls his malfunctioning weapon a “son of a gun”, and one racketeer chastises another for “talking dung”. The Vipco release had exactly the same audio track, so it’s probably fair to say that it was always like this, and there is a certain level of charm to this bizarrely chaste dubbing track. However, given that it all takes place against a backdrop of protracted gunfights, brutal gang rapes and savage beatings, there’s something a little disingenuous about it.
As per usual, there are no subtitles.
Whereas Street Law featured a commentary, a featurette and two trailers, The Big Racket is less generously stacked. In addition to a gritty European theatrical trailer, the only other extras is an audio commentary featuring Enzo G. Castellari and his son Andrea Girolami. The track, this time, is moderated by Blue Underground producer David Gregory, who does a decent job of keeping the conversation flowing, although, like its predecessor on Street Law, there are quite a few gaps of silence. The discussion takes a while to get going properly, but Castellari is once again on fine form, recalling the experience of shooting the film with affection, praising the actors, and talking about a number of pertinent subjects, from the process of adapting the script, to location scouting, to his daughter’s experience working as an assistant director for Sam Raimi. All in all, it’s a very enjoyable track and a pleasant enough way to pass a couple of hours.
The Big Racket arrives on DVD with the customary pros and cons of a Blue Underground release. While the film itself is not on the same level as Street Law, and its bonus features are less expansive, it is nonetheless a required purchase for poliziotteschi devotees, and this uncensored print is likely to go down well with those who have had to make do with the butchered botch jobs that have circulated over the years.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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