The poliziotteschi sub-genre of 1970s Italian cinema did for the crime genre what the nation’s film industry was simultaneously achieving in its concurrent horror revolution — iterations of the stories made popular by Hollywood, only with additional graphic violence, gore and sexuality. For decades, these films were generally available to American audiences only in the form of poor imports and decaying prints. That didn’t stop these films from inspiring several generations of film enthusiasts and filmmakers in search of increasingly esoteric cinematic highs. Thanks to the recent boom in boutique Blu-ray labels, many are being brought to new audiences in premium packages. Those packages, though, can sometimes be deceiving. Arrow’s new set, Rogue Cops and Racketeers, collects two poliziotteschi films directed by Enzo G. Castellari — best known stateside for his 1977 World War II film The Inglorious Bastards, which riffed on The Dirty Dozen and became an inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film, Inglourious Basterds. It’s a gorgeously produced set that’s up to Arrow’s standards, but do the films themselves justify it? Partially.
The Big Racket
The Big Racket is certainly the better of the two films included in this set, featuring the visceral content expected from its genre coupled with a simple story that exists solely to string together bursts of violence. Inspector Nico Palmieri (Fabio Testi) is a cop at the edge of his rope. The system he serves does nothing to stop vicious gangs of rapists and thugs who have started taking over his town. Even when he manages to make arrests, the culprits end up free and clear with the help of shady lawyers and even shadier upper brass. He’s a good cop trapped in a bad town.
Castellari mostly follows the criminals as they move from innocent citizen to citizen, setting up protection rackets with local shopkeepers and raping local women. They build up a large group of townsfolk who crave vengeance for their broken homes and defiled wives — essentially an army of men Palmieri then uses to raid the criminals’ hideout. It’s not the most exciting stuff, at least until the bloody finale where the two groups finally start shooting.
Arrow’s set includes a new 2K restoration with 1080p presentation. The Big Racket is admittedly gorgeous, particularly the grungy aesthetic used to make Rome feel completely debased. The score by sibling composers Guido and Maurizio De Angelis is funky and fitting. Both English and Italian versions are available on the disc; I opted for the English version for this review. An audio commentary by Adrian J. Smith and David Flint accompanies the film as well and is up to the standards of Arrow’s other releases. This release also includes new interviews with Castellari, Testi and several other cast members.
The Heroin Busters
The same enjoyment can’t be found in The Heroin Busters, which is much broader in scale and even more exploitative in its focus squarely on the era’s seemingly apocalyptic global heroin trade. Unfortunately, it’s also slower-paced and less exciting. Fabio Testi turns up here, too, as … well, Fabio, an undercover cop in Hong Kong trying to root out the source of his country’s ongoing addiction. There’s plenty of shooting up — of both kinds. Iconic metal band Goblin provides a score — in fact, its immediate follow-up to its iconic work in Suspiria — which is what held my interest the most as the film progressed. It’s possible that watching both films back-to-back created redundancy in my viewing, but The Heroin Busters just does not hold up alongside The Big Racket.
The Heroin Busters received a new 2K restoration by Arrow. It looks great; once again, these versions of the film really embrace the grimy aesthetic in an effective way. Both English and Italian audio tracks are available, as well as a commentary by Adrian J. Smith and David Flint. New interviews with cast and crew, as well as a short documentary about Goblin, round out the disc.
The package itself is about the size of other Arrow boxsets and is designed to look great in a collection. New artwork by Colin Murdoch adorns both the slipcover and the individual discs, which have their own proper cases. A fairly substantial collector’s booklet, featuring essays by Roberto Curti and Barry Forshaw, is informative and appreciated, adding substantial value to the set. For my money, the question is whether The Big Racket is worth the deluxe packaging. Frankly, the answer is yes. It’s definitely one I would show friends and serves as a solid introduction to the poliziotteschi genre.