In a small Italian town an organized group of criminals is systematically coercing every business owner to pay protection money or suffer the consequences. Their methods are extremely violent — threats of arson and vandalism are quickly made concrete if any resistance is offered. Enter Nico Palmieri (Fabio Testi), a police inspector assigned to stop the hoodlums' extortion racket. Palmieri takes his job very seriously, and after an attack on him that puts him in the hospital his desire to stop these punks goes up a few notches. He first tries to get some of the terrorized store owners to press charges but can only get one restaurateur (Renzo Palmer) to come forward. In response to the man's bravery the gang kidnaps and rapes his teenage daughter, resulting in her death. Calling in a favor from career thief Pepe (Vincent Gardenia), Nico uses him for information, getting a tip that leads to a disastrous ambush in which many more cops than criminals get killed. The gang then sets up Pepe on his next robbery, causing the thief to be arrested and his young nephew/partner to be beaten to death by an angry mob of citizens.
This highly public debacle brings Nico's deal with Pepe to the attention of the Police Commissioner, and having been previously removed from the case he's now fired. Knowing that if the leaders of the criminal organization are not discovered and taken out the racket will roll over the hamstrung police department, Nico moves to work completely outside the law. He recruits a team of people with a desire to exact vengeance on the gang, arms them and gets a vital piece of information about a meeting of the top bosses. Among his hit team is the now slightly mad restaurateur Luigi; champion skeet shooter Giovanni (Orso Maria Guerrini), whose wife was murdered after her husband helped the cops; a former mob hit man (Romano Puppo) willing to participate for his freedom from prison and a passport; and Pepe, who's hoping to purge his guilt over his nephew.
The Big Racket is a fantastic crime/action film with a great story, solid performances and several very exciting gun battles. Over the past few years director Enzo G. Castellari has slowly become one of my favorite Italian cult filmmakers. He's worked in nearly every genre I hold dear, swinging from the western to thrillers to post-apocalyptic Mad Max rip-offs without missing a beat. Here he starts the action off in high gear and then manages to ramp things up with only the briefest of pauses along the way for strategy. The story moves smoothly from point to point with little wasted effort and consistently shows a great deal of style. Even if by 1976 the (over) use of slow motion in action scenes was getting to be old hat, Castellari employs the technique brilliantly. It never feels forced or gratuitous but enhances the tension and shock as bullets strike flesh or glass flies. The best use of slo-mo here has to be the amazing scene in which we watch as Testi is tumbled down a hillside in a car. My jaw dropped open as I realized that those glass fragments and bits of debris flying around the car were real. It's moments like this one that keep the audience off balance. The movie throws in unexpected twists that smartly draw us in and keep us guessing. Having civilian marksman Giovanni impulsively join the action during the failed police ambush puts a further edge on the proceedings. Seeing this regular guy do the right thing, pay a horrible price and become a vengeful outlaw is well played with Guerrini more than capable in the role. Even the score by Guido and Maurizio De Angelis is amazing sounding, as if the best ’70s era hard rock jam band you never heard of recorded it.
Truly this is a great find for fans of both Euro-Cult and flat-out action movie fans but I do have to offer one caveat. The Blue Underground DVD only presents the film with its English dub track which, while serviceable, is not the perfect way to see the movie. Unlike the majority of European films produced for export at the time, The Big Racket was not shot with the actors speaking English, but Italian. Since the story takes place in
Italy this seems a natural choice — they're not
trying to pretend this is the U.S.
for once. But this throws the dubbing off in a way that occasionally distracted
me. This alone wouldn't have been too bad, but the English dub has a serious
flaw... The language seems to have been sanitized for our protection. There are
nearly no profanities above the level of "damn" or "hell",
and where stronger terms would be obvious, bad substitutes have been used
instead. This occasionally leads to some pretty stupid moments that make the
events onscreen unintentionally comic. How many frustrated, enraged grown men
use the word "diddly" instead of "shit"? Or would refer to
a jammed weapon in the heat of a deadly battle as a "son of a gun"?
There are a few times when this dodging of strong language is
strangely effective though, such as when the extortion gang is threatening to
sexually assault Luigi's daughter. Somehow the euphemisms make their threats
more sinister as our imaginations fill in what is being implied. But I still
think that the best way to see this movie would be with the Italian soundtrack
and subtitles. With Blue Underground's record of including sometimes rare
alternate language tracks I would have expected that option here.