Action Junkie: Street Law and an Intro to the World of Italian Action Cinema
If we are to look at the history of the action film, then the progression of the genre is one that began with the classic American Westerns directed by the likes of John Ford and Howard Hawkes. Films like The Searchers, Stagecoach, and Rio Bravo were then the inspiration for foreign film markets, especially in Italy, where in 1964 they were revitalized with the box office success of A Fistful of Dollars. This led to a whole new genre of Western, one that for the first time ever incorporated shootouts framing the victim and the shooter together on screen at the same time. It featured heroes that were more criminal or morally ambiguous than the ones played by John Wayne; they were anti-heroes, men and women willing to, as Nietzsche warned, become monsters to fight monsters. The amped-up, over-the-top violence, the themes of hired killers, revengers, and lawmen struggling to forge a civilized future, are all vital aspects to the birth of the genre of the action film.
If there is one thing the Italian cinema knows how to do extremely well, it is exploitation. The genre now-dubbed “spaghetti Western” showed the world just how well it could emulate, encapsulate, and amplify the spectacles of cinema that audiences looking for a thrill could get. It was only natural, then, that in the wake of the success of the American police-procedural action film Dirty Harry (1971), that the Italians would do the same thing. Italian director Enzo G. Castellari, best known for the original Inglorious Bastards, had already helmed several Westerns when he and Italian box-office star Franco Nero teamed up for the 1974 film High Crime. The movie is essentially a Western with a modern day setting: instead of horses, there were cars; instead of a sheriff, there was a detective, and the bandits are now a gang.
High Crime was a success in Italy and spent some time in the number one spot at the box office. Then, in the true exploitation fashion ,the film was formulized, blueprinted, and manufactured countless times in a span of just a few years, spawning the birth of the genre that is now known as Poliziotteschi films, and would last into the mid ’80s. The term Poliziotteschi roughly translates into English as ‘Police-esque,’ the word polizia meaning police and eschi (or the root, esco) basically meaning esque. The term indicates a genre where the included involve, in some way, cops and/or crime. While High Crime is a great film, filled with some great action sequences, and will be examined in Action Junkie probably in the coming months, beyond setting the standard definition of the genre, which is roughly what action films in America in the ’80s became, it is Castellari’s second film, Street Law, that I feel truly stands out most amongst the rest.
Street Law was made in 1974, on the heels of the success of High Crime, and would once again star Franco Nero. This film, however, would veer in a different direction than its predecessor. Abandoning the classic Western motif of “cowboys and bandits,” Street Law set its sights on the underbelly of Italian society, and in turn points criticism at the police department and the rise in violence that was plaguing Italy at the time. The story follows wealthy man Carlo Antonelli (Nero), who is unfortunate enough to be withdrawing money at his bank when it is held up by robbers. During a selfish attempt to protect his money, Carlo is singled out for abuse; his actions cause the bank alarm to be tripped, which sends the robbers fleeing, but not before taking Carlo hostage. As retribution for his involvement, the robbers, in the midst of a high speed getaway, proceed to thrash Carlo something fierce before abandoning him, unconscious, with the drop car.
After waking up in a hospital room, Carlo is thoroughly, and much to his frustration, interrogated by the police. In the end, the cops tell Carlo there is little they can do to catch the criminals, and send him, along with his girlfriend Barbara (played by Barbara Bach, who at one time was married to Ringo Starr), on their way. The whole incident winds up in the news, which in turn humiliates Carlo’s upper class sensibilities. Along with the police’s inaction, Carlo is fed up and decides the only thing left to do is take matters into his own hands. Capitalizing on a theme of vigilantism which was popularized by the release of Death Wish earlier the same year, Carlo proceeds to insert himself into the criminal underground. At first, his amateur and white collared demeanor causes him to stick out like a sore thumb; the people he tails know immediately he’s there and let him know so.
The movie takes an interesting twist in the plot when Carlo eventually wises up to his mistakes and decides to take a different approach. Finding a low-level crook he can frame and blackmail, Carlo manipulates the thug, Tommy, played by Giancarlo Prete, into leading him to the criminals who robbed his bank and beat him up. When the fateful meeting does take place, a series of further twists and turns, interspersed with hard-hitting action/stunt sequences, unfolds until the film’s eloquently filmed shootout climax. Among crates and forklifts inside a wide-open warehouse, Castellari stages the gun battle that takes place between Carlo and the criminals. Applying the technique of true slow-motion, by speeding the frame rate of the camera up, the sequence recalls the exhilarating moments in some of Sam Peckinpah’s films—most notably, The Wild Bunch.