ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH (1976) BY UMBERTO LENZI

Reviews

Alternative Titles: Roma A Mano Armato; The Tough Ones; Roma Armada; Roma a mano armada; Brigade special; Assault with a Deadly Weapon; Brutal Justice; Die Viper
Director: Umberto Lenzi
Writer: Dardano Sacchetti
Year: 1976
Starring: Maurizio Merli, Arthur Kennedy, Giampiero Albertini, Tomas Milian, Ivan Rassimov

Synopsis:
A tough, violent vigilante cop makes it his mission to bring to justice a machine-gun-carrying, hunchback killer by any means necessary.

Review:
The first of two Inspector Tanzi films (THE CYNIC, THE RAT AND THE FIST would follow the subsequent year with stars Maurizio Merli and Tomas Milian rekindling their bromance), ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH kicks off in traditional genre style – with an in-car camera sequence allowing us to cruise the streets and case the local banks while bobbing our heads to a nice little score courtesy of Franco Micalizzi.

We quickly meet our hero, Inspector Tanzi (Maurizio Merli) who is tipped off about a gambling den which he promptly raids with all the usual charm and violence of the archetypal Maurizio Merli character. Keep an eye out for the hapless guy who answers the door and is suddenly thrown to the floor by the entering Tanzi. Rather than being pissed off he picks himself up and casually strolls across to the bar for a J&B.

Annoyed that the bust didn’t yield any significant collars barring one known thug,  Tanzi doesn’t have to wait long before getting a second chance to dispense some justice. As lucky would have it while being sat in his car waiting, he witnesses a motorbike mugging by a couple of criminals. Determined not to let these crooks slip through his fingers he sets off in pursuit only to realise right before dishing out another ass kicking that they are just kids.

These action set pieces however are just a prelude to the adult violence that would follow, including a brutal robbery that personally affects Tanzi. This sequence not only provides the motivation for Tanzi to increase his efforts but also is used as a plot device by Dardano Sacchetti to highlight the impotence of the Italian justice system, thus working this genre trope in relatively early.

By now the Inspector has shown himself to be the stereotypical vigilante cop, one who sees the police methods he is duty bound to adhere to as actually being restrictive putting the whole force at a disadvantage when compared to ironically liberalised criminals they are up against.

Such is Tanzi’s disillusionment with the system that after a violent robbery occurs resulting in the death of a guard, when a colleague states that “we shouldn’t have let him go the other day” referring to an unrepentant and repeat criminal, a clearly irritated Tanzi replies “Don’t be silly. A cops been murdered but we went by the book that day. That’s what’s important.” Hmm as a viewer we doubt that he is being sincere.

In ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH director Umberto Lenzi and writer Dardano Sacchetti don’t just deliver the expected goods but have a knack for adding just that bit more to differentiate their films as interestingly for this type of movie, Tanzi has a permanent girlfriend, Anna (Maria Rosaria Omaggio – who went on to star with Tomas Milian in COP IN BLUE JEANS as well as NIGHTMARE CITY and BLOODY SIN), a youth offender psychologist who acts as the sympathetic voice of redemption and rehabilitation to his more hardline, uncompromising, black and white, dare we even say intolerant approach to justice. This differing ideology is in fact the cause of much friction between the two, further exacerbated by the plight of the aforementioned two juvenile offenders. Although immediately after the most extreme bout of these discussions the film presents his methods as paradoxically the safest solution for those setting out on a criminal path.

“I’m talking about two young boys dead by excess of humanity”

This could easily be a throwaway line in a film that appears to prioritise action over genuine social commentary. But through not only the idealistic sparring but also the seemingly minor conversations between Tanzi, the Chief and their peers, it appears that Dardano Sacchetti might actually have something to say about the methods of Italian justice of the time.

And bizarrely it is something that resonates with us today. Becoming particularly relevant in the context of the witnessed shifts in voter trends across Western and Central Europe as well as the arguments around the liberal elite, political correctness and the rise of the right – enabled by the impotence or perhaps over compassion of the left.

Almost ironically however Tanzi, through his police state brutality and repression of rights represents the defender of citizens’ freedom and safety. This is a theme that was prevalent in several high profile Italian films of the early seventies and clearly tapped into the feeling at the time, be it for or, in most cases against the status quo be it governmental or economical.

Back to the film and Tanzi’s partner Anna; through her no doubt justifiable arguments for reform and second chances she states that “prison makes them all delinquent”. A clear attempt to justify one sides argument that the contemporary methods were not suitable but rather trapping those caught into a self-perpetuating, dangerous cycle. 

Again parallels could be drawn to our modern times, especially in the UK where the effectiveness of reform is being investigated, albeit for economical rather than humanitarian reasons.

All of this happens in next to no time as Umberto Lenzi has covered all of this within the first seventeen minutes, and all before we even first meet Tomas Milian (it’s an even longer wait for you Ivan Rassimov fans) who plays Moretto. 

A seemingly pitiful hunchback on the periphery of the criminal underworld and unfairly framed by Tanzi in their first encounter. In fact Tanzi appears to go too far here and Moretto is driven to desperation in his bid for revenge. An act that has significant consequences for the Inspector, both personally and professionally. 

But what about Ivan Rassimov? He hasn’t been forgotten and finally makes an appearance halfway through the movie as an abusive boyfriend who is keeping his young girlfriend dependent on drugs. Unfortunately for him however the girl is the sister of Tanzi’s fallen colleague giving him a feeling of responsibility to set things right.

Now to keep momentum going there unfortunately isn’t room in the story for two key villains and as a result Ivan Rassimov is given a surprisingly small part for an actor of his standing but does excel in the limited time he has. 

This smaller than expected role is almost forced by the construction of the films in the genre. It also has the added effect of meaning that it takes a while for the Tomas Milian character Moretto to actually develop, but the wait is not only worth it but additionally helps to frame the character subsequent actions in a wider context.

Tomas Milian’s character gets pushed further and further and we begin to a transformation from Moretto the outcast to Il Gobbo, where his mental state and compassion soon begin to mimic his physical appearance, at least in regards to the attitudes of the time. 

And by the final act he has completed his transformation in the machine-gun welding madman that indiscriminately hurts anyone who stands in his way of self-gratification and money. 

A couple of the storylines that make up ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH eventually dovetail (with the others merely included for narrative momentum or potentially to flesh out the run time) leading to a final confrontation and bizarrely a motivational switch between our Inspector and his right hand man. Although once again Tanzi’s initial thoughts on justice are ultimately reinforced. 

It is a shame however that despite this, the actual end of the film is a little lackluster especially when compared to the rest of the films actions and it’s contemporaries.

While arguably Dardano Sacchetti tries to weave too many elements into the story, and despite being wrapped up I feel the film never had the resolution it was meant to, and is in fact rather forgettable compared to the previous action. 

Umberto Lenzi’s first film in the Tanzi series is less political or social in focus than many of its peers and while the Inspector suffers from the genre clichés of being frustrated by the impotence of the law, something explicitly stated via dialogue, I would argue that this focus is not a  key objective of the film which prefers to prioritise frequent bouts of action.

The film also works in a few moments of humour such as the chief of police suddenly remembering at midnight it’s his 22nd wedding anniversary and demanding a sergeant gets him a dozen red roses immediately or one of several wisecracks made by Tanzi or Moretto. This element does help to break up the film allowing the viewer to remain engaged.

Now it has been stated by other sources that Umberto Lenzi, and some of his films by extension, had fascist leanings and while the story does lean more to the centre-right suggesting anything more would be a gross overstatement especially when we consider that other characters provide a genuine balance to the issues both in their interactions and their own minds. And while Dardano Sacchetti would write the script it was from a collaborative story with Umberto Lenzi and so we have to allow the man some credit for this balance there, even if the authoritarian side always wins…but if it didn’t then we would be left with a poor excuse for an action film.

Combining strong camera work with terrific editing, which accentuates the action due to the choice of cut timings being spot on, it is a shame that the anti-climactic ending somewhat dampens the final thoughts of the film, but ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH is despite this, guaranteed to entertain fans of the genre both new and old.

My only other minor gripe would be with one sequence which appears a little more sadistic than the others and therefore a little out of place but it passes quickly and normal ass-kicking Maurizio Merli action is resumed.

If you do check this film out and it floats your boat make sure you also watch the sequel THE CYNIC, THE RAT AND THE FIST as well as the quite conceptually similar Betti films (VIOLENT ROME, VIOLENT NAPLES, A SPECIAL COP IN ACTION) which sometimes share actors, directors and in the terms of the last of the trilogy almost the same title.

On a side note Umberto Lenzi and Tomas Milian would almost reprise the character of the hunchback in the unrelated 1978 film ‘LA BANDA DEL GOBBO’ with ‘gobbo’ being the italian word for ‘hunchback’. And be on the look out for the US release under THE TOUGH ONES in which several establishing shots have been allegedly changed in order to port the action from Italy to the US.

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