While Italian director Umberto Lenzi will always be best known for directing the notorious Cannibal Ferox (a.k.a. Make Them Die Slowly) and other horror pictures, he actually had a pretty serious knack for crime pictures. Almost Human, starring Tomas Milian and Henry Silva, is probably the most popular of the films he made in that genre but 1973's Gang War In Milan (made a year before Almost Human) is a really strong entry in his filmography that should not be overlooked.
Co-written by Lenzi and Franco Enna, the story takes place (not surprisingly) in Milan where a mob boss named Salvatore Cangemi (Antonio Sabato) rules the prostitution racket with an iron fist. He keeps tabs on things, he protects his girls and he makes a pretty good penny doing it. Understandably, when one of the best earners in his group winds up dead in a swimming pool, he's more than a little annoyed. He decides to take it upon himself to track down her killer and pay him back in kind because the cops, led by Inspector Contalvi (Franco Fantasia), really aren't interested in a dead hooker. They are, however, interested in putting the screws to guys like Salvatore who operate outside the law.
Things get complicated when Congemi is approached by Roger Daverty (Philippe Leroy), the new kid in town looking to make it big in the drug business. He wants to partner up with the more experienced Milanese gangster because he wants permission to handle the narcotics traffic on Congemi's home turf. Congemi isn't interested, however, because he's savvy enough to know a bum deal when he sees one. He'd rather ignore Daverty and cozy up to his foxy moll, Jasmina (the gorgeous Marisa Mell). Daverty doesn't take lightly to this and soon the two sides declare war with control Milan's criminal underworld the prize. When it looks like everyone Congemi thought he could count on is ready to betray him, the bodies start to pile up and the stakes become increasingly dangerous for everyone involved.
Fast paced, violent and gritty Gang War In Milan takes place in a world where there are no clear heroes or villains, it's a movie that operates in shades of grey. While Salvatore is the central character, he's basically a pimp and hardly a character to look up to, though in many ways he does at least operate within his own code of ethics and would seem to be more honorable than many of those around him. As the tensions between Salvatore's crew and Daverty's crew ramp up, the focus of the film becomes not to find the killer of the dead prostitute but to settle the score between the two warring factions. Here the film begins to deal in sharp violence, much of it towards women (which can understandably make for some uncomfortable moments as Lenzi doesn't hold back when it comes to violence). Many of Salvatore's women become the targets of Daverty's attacks and things get very ugly very quickly in this regard.
This is, however, a tale of bad men. We're not asked to idolize what happens here or even really to take sides. The movie isn't a message film, it's meant to be fast paced entertainment, the sleazy kind that was so popular in this genre when it was going full tilt in the wake of successful American pictures like The French Connection and The Godfather. Lenzi paces all of this incredibly well, creating tension out of the violence he depicts and furthering the story with it. The score, from Carlo Rustichelli, helps to propel the picture while the slick camerawork frames things in interesting ways, be it a close up to zone in on a specific character's reaction or a wide angle shot showing the catastrophic results of a car bomb. Sabato, probably better known for his work on various Spaghetti Westerns than for his work in other genres, anchors the film. He's good in the lead and he carries the film. Philippe Leroy is effectively slimy as the antagonist and Franco Fantasia, as the fairly useless cop, is also fine. Marisa Mell looks lovely here as one of the few sympathetic characters in the movie. All in all, a well-made mix of action and drama skewed through that undeniably twisted sensibility of Italian genre cinema of the seventies.
Gang War In Milan arrives on Blu-ray form Raro Video in a VC-1 encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 2.35.1 widescreen. While some of Raro's recent transfers have been smeared with obvious noise reduction, this one is, thankfully, pretty solid. Though some light noise reduction is obvious here and there, it doesn't completely obliterate the image. Detail looks quite good not just in close up shots but in medium and long range shots as well. Texture is typically impressive and skin looks like skin and not like wax even if some pores do seem to disappear. Black levels are good if maybe not reference quality sometimes looking more like a really dark grey but color reproduction, red in particular, is very strong. There's virtually no print damage to complain about, whatever elements used for this were obviously in excellent condition, and all in all the movie and its slick cinematography translate very well to Blu-ray on this disc.
Audio options are provided in both English and Italian language lossless tracks in LPCM Mono with optional subtitles in English only. While the range is understandably limited by the older source material, both tracks are quite clean, clear and well balanced. There are no noticeable problems with any hiss or distortion outside of a few minor spots that most won't likely notice while the levels are set properly throughout. The subtitles are free of any obvious typos and easy to read. There are no problems here, both tracks sound fine.
Extras are slim but we do get a five minute video introduction to the film from Mike Malloy who offers up some background information about the picture and those who made it. Additionally, inside the keepcase, there's a booklet of liner notes from Malloy that offer further details as well as film credits.
Umberto Lenzi's Gang War In Milan is a solid, hardboiled Italian gangster film that deals in heavy doses of sordid nastiness. It's also a taut thriller, a well shot film that moves at a good pace, features some great ‘tough guy' performances and which really showcases how well Lenzi could make a film ‘move' when working with the right material. The Blu-ray release from Raro looks pretty good and features decent audio. There extras are slim but what is there is enjoyable. This is a grim film, but fans of seventies cop films, particularly those that were churned out en masse in Italy, should consider it recommended.
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.