Fabio Testi (of the excellent Revolver) plays a narc named Fabio (which for some reason made this reviewer snicker to himself) who finds himself having to go undercover for Interpol to expose an international heroin smuggling operation. The only man who knews of Fabio's identity and intent is his boss, a British Interpol agent named Mike Hamilton (David Hemmings of Argento's Deep Red). The two set up a bust that's to go down at a fancy hotel in Rome but it gets botched and a large shipment of heroin hits the streets.
In order to increase the heat on the dope dealers, Hamilton decides that Fabio should pose as a criminal in prison so that he can get closer to Girro, a drug dealer with friends in high places. He finds himself in the big house and soon is able to win Girro over as a confidant. From there, he gets the information that he needs and plans to help him escape. Once they're on the outside, Girro helps Fabio make some contacts with prominent drug lords around the area, effectively completing his plan for him. Things are looking up for Fabio's work until his cover gets blown wide open and he finds some pretty heavy criminals out for his blood. Hamilton finds out that Fabio's been exposed as the narc he is, and he's coming to help with reinforcements in tow, but it's going to take him a while to find his co-worker and until he does, Fabio's going to have to fend for his life against the ruthless mobsters all by his lonesome.
The movie starts off with a montage set to music (courtesy of Goblin) in which we learn just how expansive the drug dealing operation that Interpol are after really is. We see it in effect from Europe to Asia to America so that we can really get a feel for how intense Fabio's task is going to be as well as the importance of what he is doing. It might prove to be a little tough to follow at first, but bare with it, things clear up soon enough and from there the movie is perfectly coherent in spite of a few sub-plots that don't really go anywhere or get resolved.
Testi is likeable and charismatic in the lead, while Hemmings makes a good sidekick of sorts. They've got a good on screen chemistry and while it doesn't reach the levels of intensity that Testi's work with Oliver Reed in Sollima's Revolver did, you can't hold that against it – few can compare to the intensity that Oliver Reed brought to the screen, especially in that role. Fabio cruises through the film with believable enough swagger and charm that we can understand him and accept him in the part, we can see how the drug dealers might be lead to believe he is one of their own and let him in on a few of their secrets – he fits the part well.
While the action takes a little while to get moving, the last half hour or so of the film is pretty much a roller coaster ride. Once Fabio's exposed, the movie kicks into overdrive and as he races for his life, Castellari's takes us along for the ride in an absolutely fantastic chase scene from the city outwards. Castellari's has always had a keen eye for framing action set pieces in truly exciting ways and in using slow motion effectively, and the last chunk of The Heroin Busters demonstrates that as well as anything he's done save for maybe the infamous tumbling car scene from his masterpiece, The Big Racket.
Part drama, part actioner and just as much a condemnation of the drug trade (there are some truly harrowing depictions of junkies and how low they will stoop in this film), The Heroin Busters is a stylish and genuinely grim crime thriller that builds to a completely satisfying conclusion and which demonstrates Castellari's considerable skills as a director. The exploitation elements one would expect from this type of film are there – completely unnecessary female nudity, bloody shoot outs, extreme close ups of intravenous drug use – but the performances and the climax place this one a notch or two above your standard Italian cop film.
The Heroin Busters comes to NTSC DVD in a nice progressive scan 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The colors look nice and bold throughout save for a few scenes where things are obviously supposed to look bleak, the black levels stay strong and deep from start to finish, and the flesh tones look lifelike and natural. There is some mild edge enhancement present in a few scenes and some line shimmering in the usual places like on the front of a car grill or along the sides of a building but there aren't any mpeg compression artifacts worth noting nor is there much in the way of print damage aside from the odd speck or two – the image is consistently clean and very nice looking throughout. Some mild grain is present as is the odd scratch here and there, but that's to be expected. Overall, the film looks really good on this DVD. The image isn't flawless, but for an older low budget action movie, it holds up well.
This one hits DVD in a dubbed Dolby Digital English language mix. Quality of the mix should please most fans. Anyone familiar with Euro-cult films of this era knows that sometimes the dubs are a little wonky and that the lips don't always match the performers but that's sometimes half the fun of these films though this time out David Hemmings does his own dubbing, which makes this English language track a pretty decent way to enjoy the film. Dialogue is clean and clear, there aren't any problems with serious hiss or distortion and the levels are balanced properly. There's a bit of mild background hiss in one or two spots but it's so mild that it's really never an issue and the score sounds quite good as well.
Blue Underground treats us to a couple of solid extra features starting with a commentary track featuring Enzo Castellari and his son, moderated by David Gregory of Blue Underground. Castellari's memory is sharp and as with the commentaries that he has done on the other two Euro-crime titles release by Blue Underground at the same time as this disc, he isn't afraid to talk up his film or his leading man as he hits us with a few anecdotes about working with Fabio Testi and David Hemmings, shooting on location, and a few of the themes that the movie deals with both socially and politically, notably the drug trade. He tells about casting the movie, some of the shot sets up, and some of the action set pieces and he once again comes across as a genuinely likeable guy with a sincere passion for filmmaking.
Rounding out the extra features is the film's original theatrical trailer, some basic menus, and chapter selection. No still gallery is included.
Testi and Hemmings make a great team and the final half hour of The Heroin Busters packs enough of a punch to more than make up for whatever slow parts comprise the opening portion of the film. Blue Underground's DVD looks and sounds good and contains an interesting director's commentary, making this one an easy recommendation for fans of the genre or seventies action films in general.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.