Alternative Titles: Luca il contrabbandiere; The Naples Connection; Luca el contrabandista; La guerre des gangs; Das Syndikat des Grauens; The Smuggler
Director: Lucio Fulci
Writers: Gianni De Chiara, Ettore Sanzo
Starring: Fabio Testi, Ivana Monti, Marcel Bozzuffi; Luciano Rossi;
Fabio Testi stars as Luca, an ‘old-school’ cigarette smuggler who triggers a ferocious mob war when his brother is killed and his wife kidnapped by a rival gang headed by a totally drug dealing, depraved sadist who is intent on replacing the cigarette smuggling status quo.
[Adapted from the Shameless DVD release]
Seemingly a million miles away from the sun-kissed coast of Naples that exists in our minds, CONTRABAND starts in a bleak, misty Neapolitan harbour where a local smuggling gang, led by our protagonist Luca (Fabio Testi – WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE?; GANG WAR IN NAPLES; THE BIG RACKET), make a successful yet clearly illegal pick up only to be rumbled by the fuzz resulting in a passable chase which has the novelty of being on the water instead of in the streets.
Struggling to get away, Luca pulls plan B out of the bag and his neat trick ensures that all of his team get away…but at a cost of two million in earnings. It is clear that the gang were sold out and Luca thinks he knows who by.
With suspicions aroused it is not long before Luca’s brother Mickey (Enrico Maisto – THE CLIMBER; VIOLENT NAPLES; CORLEONE) is gunned down in front of him and it is this event that is the real catalyst for the story.
Although relatively early this pivotal moment of the film is treated with all the grandeur it deserves as director Lucio Fulci pulls out the slow-motion effect in an attempt to heighten the emotional impact but as would happen on a number of other occasions throughout the film these little attempts to add a touch of gravitas to proceedings fail to hit the mark.
Now by this point of the story we have been introduced to Luca’s family, living and dead, but through an exposition we discover exactly why there was a such a tight bond between brothers and why vengeance is so important to Luca.
Having spent the opening twenty minutes laying down these emotional foundations it is a shame that the affect on the viewer is minimal, although this is in part down to the limited range of Fabio Testi. Thankfully however there is a growing level of criminal political intrigue, double crossing and violence to keep our attention.
I suspect that Lucio Fulci could see that the drama was failing to register at this point and rather bravely at this point the director decides to double down as CONTRABAND boosts the family element ensuring that it not only added further impetus to Luca’s vendetta but would also raise the stakes for the viewer thanks in part to one particularly sadistic scene.
With this it is interesting to see that after all these attempts at building intricate plotting between characters and a strong family dynamic, albeit a two-dimensional one, the director falls back to what many modern audiences would expect – graphic, shocking violence – as a body is thrown in a sulphur pit, a face shown being burnt by a bunsen burner and a throat being shot off being just some of the highlights of the brutal war that ensues between the old guard and the new crime boss from Marseille, played by Marcel Bozzuffi in a part not too dissimilar to the one he held in THE FRENCH CONNECTION.
Despite all of this violence however, CONTRABAND fails to live up to its promise in the action stakes, relatively speaking, and this arguably could come down to Lucio Fulci himself, on his first and only eurocrime film, not yet being knowledgeable enough in directing the required big action scenes to the same standard as genre masters Enzo G. Castellari (HIGH CRIME; STREET LAW; THE BIG RACKET THE HEROIN BUSTERS) and even fellow journeyman Umberto Lenzi (GANG WAR IN MILAN; ALMOST HUMAN; SYNDICATE SADISTS; VIOLENT NAPLES; THEY CYNIC, THE RAT AND THE FIST) had achieved by this point in time.
This is not saying the action is bad here, in fact the violence considered in isolation certainly lives up to the hype and shock expected of the director but it is the surrounding action and context that is notably weaker than his peers in the genre.
Which arguably explains why CONTRABAND shifts ever so slightly more towards the dramatic, and this is something that it suffers for in an almost pedestrian first act. Looking at the period in which the film was made this dramatic aspect may also tie in with where Italy was as a society at the time. Moving into a new decade the stories of public disorder and seemingly random true life violence that once influenced the seventies eurocrime were becoming more infrequent and while Lucio Fulci has technically maintained the tradition of drawing from real life it is here perhaps with more of an artistic licence as he delves deeper spending more time on Luca’s family dynamic than perhaps is necessary in this film or rather should I say in the audiences demands.
Coming at the very tail end of the sub-genre one could almost see CONTRABAND as an evolution from the more direct action set-piece focused eurocrime (I do feel that A SPECIAL COP IN ACTION attempted this as well). It is also worth noting the sporadic use of two police officers throughout the film. Used sparingly they break up the criminal focus and more serious drama thanks to their dialogue lending an almost thoughtful (and sometimes lighter) tone as they mimic the conversations of the philosophers of antiquity by discussing the morality of the smugglers actions and how communities rely on them for their livelihood while at the same time being in direct violation of law and civil order. Honourable crooks if you will – much like Luca and no doubt the small number of producers on the film who were actually Neapolitan smugglers (as noted by Roberto Curti in his book ‘Italian Crime Filmography 1968-1980’) and surely had a hand in how they were portrayed.
Overall CONTRABAND is not only a Lucio Fulci film – layered, intelligent and at times graphically violent– but one representative of a certain point in his career. While it will certainly appease those looking for superficial violent thrills it does attempt to offer much more, even if it does not necessarily succeed.
Clearly not a top tier film, despite the wonderful and seasoned supporting cast, CONTRABAND does entertain and add a little something different to the genre.
Oh and as well as nice gun-toting cameo from Lucio Fulci look out for our pal Luciano Rossi. He would also go in to feature in Lucio Fulci’s CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD in the same year and the two films were released in theatres only three days apart.
I watched the 2014 Shameless Films DVD release which had a slightly grainy image quality and English dubbing of a dubious quality but it is released uncut and with an Italian audio track.
Finally the lenticular case for the DVD packaging is fantastic and certainly does the film and Shameless justice. Check it out.