Saturday, September 23, 2023

#2,928. The Big Racket (1976) - 70s Euro Crime Triple Feature


When writing about Enzo G. Castellari’s 1976 crime movie The Big Racket, Italian critic Morando Morandini said:

It’s a fascist film. It’s a vile film. It’s an idiot film”.

A strong reaction, certainly, but then The Big Racket is the kind of movie that will elicit such a response.

There are scenes that hit you like a ton of bricks, moments so disturbing they will stay with you for days. And the criminals in The Big Racket are detestable. Think of the worst gang of thugs and lowlifes in any movie you’ve seen, and chances are they won’t hold a candle to the villains in this film.

And yet, despite its harsh and gritty approach, Castellari directs The Big Racket with gusto, and even some panache, making it a whole lot more than your run-of-the-mill violent crime flick.

Gangs roam the streets of a small neighborhood in Rome, extorting “protection” money from shop owners and businessmen, often demanding sizable payments they cannot afford. If these merchants don’t cough up the cash, they are beaten and their businesses are destroyed. Detective Palmieri (Fabio Testi) has been trying to rid the area of this vermin for years, only to find that the victims are scared, and never willing to press charges.

Then, restaurant owner Luigi (Renzo Palmer) decides he’s had enough, and agrees to cooperate with Palmieri. The criminals respond by kidnapping Luigi’s daughter and raping her.

When his superiors, who fear he’s become too emotionally attached to the case, prevent Palmieri from getting involved any further, the disgruntled cop rounds up a few equally pissed cohorts, including Luigi; small-time crook Pepe (Vincent Gardenia); and champion sharpshooter Gianni Rossetti (Orso Maria Guerrini), whose own wife, Anna (Anna Zinnemann), also suffered the cruel abuse of the gangs. Employing their own brand of vigilante justice, they take the fight to the crooks, hoping to end this reign of terror once and for all.

The Big Racket is a violent film. It is unflinching. The rape of Luigi’s daughter is tough to watch, but there is another scene later in the film (with Gianni and his wife) that is tougher.

Castellari also borrows heavily from earlier films such as Dirty Harry and Death Wish, which favored vigilantism over law and order. Yet by the time Detective Palmieri puts his team together (making the final act of The Big Racket a kind of Dirty Harry meets Castellari’s own 1978 film The Inglorious Bastards), we the audience are one with their cause, and happily put our own morality on the backburner. We are cheering the vigilantes on because the criminals in this film are loathsome (a tribute to the actors and actress who play them). We hate this scum, and cannot wait to see each and every one get their just desserts.

We know we shouldn’t feel that way, but we do. Castellari has pulled the strings perfectly, and we go where he leads us, accepting that, yes, the final showdown happens exactly how it needs to happen.

Part of the reason Castellari pulls this off is that he infuses The Big Racket with tons of style. Amidst all the carnage and ugliness are some impressively staged sequences, chief among them an early encounter between Palmieri and the crooks, in which the thugs destroy Palmieri’s car while he’s still inside it, then roll it down a hill. Shooting half of this sequence from the car’s interior, we watch as Fabio Testi (doing his own stunt work) tumbles over and over again in a rolling vehicle. It is as awe-inspiring as it is terrifying. There are even a few moments of beauty, like a brief scene in which Palmieri, recovering from the wounds, strolls along a beach as the setting sun illuminates the sky.

Employing these as well as slow-motion, and combining it all with convincing violence (I couldn’t count the number of squibs used during the shootouts); impressive locations (one scene is set in the Roman Forum); and an over-the-top, often comedic performance by Vincent Gardenia, whose Pepe is the sole likable crook in the entire movie, Castellari manages to make the terrible and grotesque more palpable.

And when you watch The Big Racket, you will realize this was no small accomplishment.
Rating: 9 out of 10

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