A very entertaining Italian pastiche of top Hollywood action thrillers, The Big Racket (Il Grande racket, 1976) has Times Square written all over it. The picture cleverly combines elements from Dirty Harry (1971) and Death Wish (1974) especially, with an apocalyptic finale straight out of The Dirty Dozen (1967). No brooding mediation on the inequities of the Italian criminal justice system or character study along the lines of The Fifth Cord - The Big Racket aims only to entertain, and in this regard succeeds quite well.
Fabio Testi stars as plainclothes Police Inspector Nico Palmieri, who with partner Salvatore (Sal Borgese) is ready to crack down on a gang of four hoodlums shaking down small business owners for "protection money" ("Just think of it as paying taxes," says one), and their well-dressed boss, slimy British mobster Rudy (Joshua Sinclair). At every turn however, the gangsters go free due to legal technicalities, much to Nico and Salvatore's frustration, especially after the evil foursome (including one woman) begin brutally assaulting and murdering those hesitant to cough up the dough. Nico tails them but is discovered, and the criminals respond by sending the cop and his car toppling down a steep hill. (Testi impressively did some of his own stuntwork.)
(mild spoilers ahead)
Meanwhile, restaurant owner Luigi (Renzo Palmer) is beaten and his 15-year-old daughter Stefania (Stefania Girolami Goodwin, daughter of director Enzo G. Castellari) is raped and soon thereafter commits suicide. An Olympic skeet shooter, Giovanni (Orso Maria Guerrini) wife is also raped and burned alive. Taken past the breaking point Nico, as Blue Underground's press materials put it, "throws away the rulebook," and begins teaming up with Rudy's victims, including petty thief Pepe (Vincent Gardenia, dubbed by another actor), seeking vengeance.
The Big Racket delivers the goods in spite of an overly familiar and shamelessly manipulative script that, like the Dirty Harry and Death Wish films, ties its hero's hands so that he's helpless to stop these completely rotten gangsters (who gleefully talk about murdering children no less) until the last act when, one-by-one, they all get their hard-earned comeuppance in highly-satisfying, primally entertaining revenge killings.
Fabio Testi isn't so much Dirty Harry as the typical Fabio Testi hero: cool Italian what with his suede jackets, sunglasses and sideburns, and those long, satisfying drags on his ever-present Marlboro Reds. Renzo Palmer more or less inherits the Charles Bronson/Paul Kersey role, though here it's written as a man who truly cracks and disintegrates under the strain, and Palmer gives the film its best performance and most interesting character. Vincent Gardenia's late-in-the-film pickpocket attempts to lighten things up; it's an amusing performance (from what one can perceive through the dubbing) if a bit out of step with the tone of the rest of the picture.
Castellari's direction gives the film exactly what it needs, with numerous and well-choreographed action sequences (incorporating Hong Kong-influenced martial arts), despite obvious budgetary limitations**, capped with a great climatic shoot-out. The film seems to have all its original violence and nudity intact, yet there's a curious, at times laughably Herculean effort in the English dubbing to avoid all profanity. Throughout are lines like "deep in the diddly," "I'm going to beat the diddly out of you!" and "That's what happens to baskets like you!"
Video & Audio
The Big Racket is presented in what for Blue Underground is a typically excellent 16:9 transfer at 1.77:1, approximating the original 1.85:1 release. The colors are good (original lab: Telecolor), and the image is sharp. English title elements have been used, and the original exit music is included. Regrettably the film is offered with English-dubbed tracks only, and there are no subtitle options.
Supplements include an Italian Trailer that's subtitled and 16:9 (Gardenia's voice is dubbed here, too), along with an entertaining Audio Commentary Track in which David Gregory interview director Castellari in English, with the participation of an uncredited Andrea Girolami, the director's son.
The Big Racket is solid action-crime film fare, one that fans of the genre who until now have steered clear of these Italian releases might want to sample. Though a bit short on extras this time, Blue Underground delivers another genre gem.
** Though "squibs" are employed for some scenes when characters get shot, the filmmakers often resort to what looks like paintball gun pellets, with stuntmen getting whacked with what looks like strawberry jam.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.