CONTRABAND (1980) BY LUCIO FULCI

Reviews

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
Year: 1980
Starring: Fabio Testi, Ivana Monti, Marcel Bozzuffi; Luciano Rossi;

Synopsis:
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]

Review:
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.

Version Reviewed:
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.

THE BIG RACKET (1976) BY ENZO CASTELLARI

Reviews

Alternative Titles: Il Grande Racket; Racket; Big Violence; Forajidos 77
Director: Enzo G. Castellari
Writers: Enzo G. Castellari, Massimo De Rita, Arduino Maiuri
Year: 1976
Starring: Fabio Testi, Vincent Gardenia, Renzo Palmer

Review:
A toe tapping score introduces the film as a criminal gang terrorise a commercial neighbourhood all the while police Inspector Nico Palmieri (a strapping Fabio Testi – WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE?; THE HEROIN BUSTERS; RINGS OF FEAR; CONTRABAND) watches on, waiting for his chance to pounce and bring some justice to the streets. Opening with scenes of mayhem and violence is nothing new for the genre and the film set’s itself up nicely with these opening sequences but it is not long before director Enzo Castellari’s style (and apparent love of multiple camera angles comes into play to provide something different.

After the brief introduction of Rudy (Joshua Sinclair – KEOMA), the English boss of ‘the racket’, we are treated to multiple angles of the same instance which although fails to provide any additional depth or understanding is a good excuse for some breathtaking footage as an internal catches the reaction of the Inspector as he is trapped inside his car which is repeatedly rolling 360 degrees down a hill. This scene is worth mentioning in itself not because of the usual distance shot of the car but for these cuts to an the internal camera as we see the poor Inspector turned upside repeatedly as glass shatters all around him.

Unsurprisingly hospitalised and now disillusioned with the (trope alert) impotence of the law, Palmieri seems almost beaten as he states when asked if he wants to go after the punks that did this to him “What’s the use …in 3 days they’ll be out and about again”. 

Finally however our dejected Inspector reaches that stereotypical eurocrime turning point of admitting that if the law cannot do what is required and if the ends justify the means, then he is the man to take the law into his own hands and make a difference.

Setting about his plan to bring down the mysterious English boss, Palmieri uses some dubious methods which not only result in the release of the lackeys he does manage to collar but also in some gruesome repercussions for one unlucky citizen and his family. Once again reiterating the point that the law protects the guilty and not the innocent.

These initial failed attempts see Palmieri kicked off the case, or at least that is what is said but in practice it makes no difference to the film as he ploughs on with his mission propelling the film forwards and providing a handy little plot device to eschew the procedural aspects that sometimes bog down these types of films but has enough room to allow for the justification and organizational protection (although whether this is a good thing is another debate especially when we consider the tale of repressive power in Elio Petri’s INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION – but let’s make like this film and sidestep serious political debate) that only being a member of the police force can provide.

From here the film is pretty unrelenting in terms of action as director Enzo Castellari is pretty much given carte blanche to indulge and he certainly makes the most of the opportunity as cars are blown up and violence rife. All of this action however comes at a price as THE BIG RACKET utilises its action for two purposes; the first is to entertain, and secondly to replace the need of a subplot or character relationships as it is actually through action rather than dialogue that these instances occur, such as the ways in which we an elderly pick pocket and a champion skeet shooter are introduced. 

The introduction of the later occurs via a high octane and brutal gunfight. If the retaliation by the ‘racket’ to the earlier inconvenience caused by Palmieri and a meddling civilian was brutal, Enzo Castellari takes things up a notch for our new have-a-go hero as the tone suddenly shifts to slightly darker territory more akin to the sleazier entries in the wider genre, such as ALMOST HUMAN and RABID DOGS, and as powerful as it is the result is that it feels a little alien to the rest of the film.

Irrespective of this short lived tonal shift, a double crossing and sacking helps lead us to the formation of our vigilante squad and with the random roping in of an ex-mob hit man our motley crew go off to settle old scores in an explosive showdown.

Despite lacking the rugged looks and masculinity of contemporaries such as Franco Nero or Maurizio Merli, the athletically built Fabio Testi, fresh off a year which saw him star in the Lucio Fulci western THE FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE and the Tonino Valerii crime drama VAI GORILLA, puts in a solid performance as Inspector Palmieri. 

If you are not familiar with his other performances then you may be forgiven for thinking that the star is a little two-dimensional, as his character lacks any form of emotional complexity or emotional engagement that would either test the actor or provide some additional depth to the narrative. However the actors loss is the films gain, with this lack of depth actually streamlining the film allowing for the momentum of the action to be maintained. 

On the subject of the cast the film also features notable performances from a strong cast including Vincent Gardenia (DEATH WISH; LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS [remake]), the familiar face of Renzo Palmer (DANGER: DIABOLK; STREET LAW; THE CYNIC, THE RAT AND THE FIST), as well as Glauco Onorato (BLACK SABBATH; VIVA! DJANGO) and Antonio Marsina (KEOMA; THE MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD; THE LAST BLOOD) amongst others.

After HIGH CRIME and STREET LAW, THE BIG RACKET is a successful return to the world of the vigilante for Enzo Castellari which is pretty close to being definitive of the genre. I say this because it makes a terrific introduction to the genre, displaying many of the hallmark tropes with its disillusioned cop, impotent justice system, well-choreographed entertaining fights and vigilante civilians standing up for justice all contributing to the mirroring of the chaotic and frequently violent Italian society of the 1970’s.

Overall however THE BIG RACKET is an entertaining watch from start to finish that promises and delivers everything a fan of the genre would want and despite not being quite up there with the best efforts of the genre it deserves to be in the collection of every fan of the genre.

Additional:
As a bit of a side note, if rumours are to be believed THE BIG RACKET represents something of an oddity for the films of Enzo Castellari and the period in general due to the way that the audio was recorded first in Italian and then dubbed into English after, as opposed to the usual method of the other way around. 

Allegedly this is because star Fabio Testi was unable to speak English. However, many directors at the time (perhaps most famously Lucio Fulci) would frequently have cast members speaking their lines in their native language because they knew that it would all be dubbed over anyway as the Italian industry rarely worked with live sound. 

Meanwhile Enzo Castellari actually comes from a family of film makers with his father, Marino Girolami, also being a director who worked on VIOLENT ROME and ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST amongst others.