Street Law

Hot on the heels of the spectacular High Crime, director Enzo Castellari and actor Franco Nero take another stab at the burgeoning poliziotteschi genre, this time eschewing the popular “cop on the edge/Dirty Harry” approach and instead turning to the template established in 1974 by Charles Bronson’s Death Wish. The primary difference between the two is that Bronson’s character was a man of peace pushed to violent extremes, constantly grappling with the morality of vigilantism even in the face of his family suffering a truly nightmarish crime. Franco Nero’s Carlo Antonelli, by contrast, gets roughed up by some crooks and almost instantly launches a campaign of murderous violence against them without any real philosophical debate. It’s like he was already a well-mustached powder keg of vigilante vengeance just waiting to be unleashed. Instead of confronting the moral ambiguity of vigilantism through the doubts of its protagonist, Street Law elects instead to address it on a slightly more meta level, one in which the hero’s actions aren’t questioned by the hero himself but instead by the fact that, at the bloody end of all things, he is just as frustrated and unfulfilled as he was at the beginning.

Castellari sets the tone for the film with a taut, squib-and-balaclava packed opening sequence in which we see a gang of smash and grab crooks rampaging through Rome while the Guido and Maurizio De Angelis song “Goodbye My Friend” rages intensely. It’s a song that practically boils over with seething rage, the mangled broken English of the lyrics only adding to the impression that it’s being screamed by a man who has been pushed too far and can only express himself in stuttering exclamations backed by screaming fuzzed out guitars. The crime spree culminates in a heist where one of the customers, Nero’s Carlo Antonelli, attempts to make a stand against the robbers, though it’s an oddly self-serving stand (he sneakily tries to retrieve his own money before the crooks can grab it). For his efforts, he is mercilessly tossed around and ultimately taken hostage as the thieves make their escape, which leads to a pretty fantastic car chase that features one of those eye-popping stunts that you can miss if you blink. The criminals’ car is careening out of control and smashes into a vendor’s bicycle — with the vendor/stuntman still on it and send spiralling off the back of his bike from the impact. It’s an almost nothing moment that doesn’t draw attention to itself, but when you consider that it was done at speed — no slow motion here, despite it being Castellari behind the camera — and the precision it must have taken to get it just right while only putting the stuntman in a lot of danger instead of a huge amount of danger, then you begin to process just how insane that little five-second throw-away shot was.

Ever polite, the crooks leave Carlo bloodied but alive in the back of the car as they make their final getaway, but this is Franco Nero at the height of his mustache’s power so he’s hardly one to let bygones be bygones and just be thankful to still be alive. When the police prove ineffectual, lazy about prosecuting the case, and perhaps even corrupt, Nero makes his patented “I’m so goddamned pissed off right now” rage face and delivers the “criminals roam free while law-abiding citizens are prisoners in their own homes, and the system does nothing about it” speech that is required by law for all movies of this type. He then vows that if the police are too defeated and corrupt to do anything, he’ll do it himself. This proclamation does not sit well with his girlfriend (Barbara Bach, playing a nothing character in which the movie has almost no interest), who does her best to remind Carlo that he’s just a regular Joe scientist with none of the skills required to become a crusading avenger taking on a well-armed mob.

This doesn’t stop him from launching his foolhardy quest though, and one of the film’s best sequences is a montage of Nero bumbling his way through trying to identify the gang members by awkwardly walking up to street people, would-be thugs, and shady bartenders. It’s obvious that he’s out of his league despite his sweet shades (he even gets chased out of a bar), but over the course of several scenes, we watch Carlo learn and evolve (not necessarily for the better). It’s all set to another great theme, “Driving All Around,” which is one of those fantastic songs from back when theme songs were just narrations of what was happening in the movie. As the song explains, these are scenes of Franco Nero driving all around, looking for the one, who took his…things away? Face away? Can’t really tell what they’re singing, but as the song tells us and the criminals dinna know, Franco Nero does not forget.

Eventually, he realizes that he’s too much an outsider, and a stranger wandering into a cheap villain bar isn’t going to come out with a lot of information. So he zeros in on a small-time thief named Tommy (Giancarlo Prete from Castellari’s Escape from the Bronx and New Barbarians, where he was oiled up and squeezed into an unflattering suit of clear plastic armor) and follows the guy around, taking photos of him pulling an assortment of jobs. He then uses the photos to blackmail Tommy — a more familiar face in the criminal underworld and more acquainted with the peculiarities of gangland etiquette — into assisting him. It’s actually here that the character of Carlo begins to get complicated and we begin to get an inkling of what Street Law is trying to say. Carlo is not a bad guy necessarily, but his obsession with avenging the wrong does to him drives him to do some pretty questionable things, the worst of which is pressuring poor ol’ nobody Tommy into being Homer on his odyssey through the underworld Inferno. True, Tommy is a thief — but he’s just a thief. He’s not violent, he’s not a killer; he’s just some dude who got hit with some bad breaks in life and ended up on the wrong side of the law. But when Carlo focuses in on Tommy, all he sees is a criminal. It doesn’t matter what kind, or that Carlo may not know much more about the world of truly violent crime or taking out gangsters than Carlo. But our hero doesn’t hesitate to put the screws to Tommy to get what he wants and forces the chump into increasingly dangerous situations. It begins with Carlo wanting Tommy to get him guns but quickly escalates into Tommy being pressed into service alongside the increasingly driven Carlo.

Which, apart from an examination of the unraveling of a man’s morals, is another point Street Law has to make: risky behavior usually comes with consequences. Heavy consequences — not just a gash on the arm that causes them to grimace and cover it with their other hand after a fight scene. Carlo sets out on a potentially self-destructive vendetta, and there’s a substantial price to be paid both by him and those around him. Poliziotteschi films grappled throughout their brief but bloody period of popularity with accusations of glorifying fascism and vigilante violence — a charge that was sometimes true but also often simply a misinterpretation of what was happening on screen. In the case of Street Law, for example, although Franco Nero is the protagonist, his violent quest for justice is shown as having a punishing effect on those around him, and that in the service of a payout that seems like it simply was not worth the cost. These people aren’t collateral damage; they are put in danger entirely because of Carlo’s actions. It’s a long way from glorifying the action and instead, like many films from this genre, seems to take a much grayer approach to its hero than it might first seem.

Charges of fascism are further undercut by the varying viewpoints from which tales of the genre were relayed. Poliziotteschi, as the name implies, were the movies told from the point of view of frustrated cops who take the law into their own hands — your Violent Rome, Violent Naples, and High Crime, among many others. And while it’s true that civil rights usually suffer at the hands of such plots, it’s also true that in the end the movies question whether the price paid in both blood and loss of freedom was worth the fight. Cop films are balanced also against movies with other points of views — the crusading newspaperman, for example, or even the criminal in the crosshairs (sometimes an anti-hero, sometimes a straight up villain). And in Street Law, we get a film from the point of view of the citizen imprisoned in his own home so often referenced in the speeches of the cops on the edge in their own films. It all mixes up into a genre that is far more complex, confounding, and contradictory than the simple surface view of Maurizio Merli bitch slapping the hell out of some rapist who is protected from the law because he’s the son of a city councilman or something. If anything, poliziotteschi in particular and Eurocrime films in general focus on one common belief: that the system itself is corrupt beyond repair — especially when the corrupt system is the one in charge of addressing its own corruption. And in between the wheels of that corrupt system, good people are ground down and stripped of their humanity. The heroes in these films are really empty vessels into which the viewer can pour their own motivations.

Measured against my two current favorite poliziotteschi films — High Crime and Violent NaplesStreet Law is more of a slow burn, with less excessive and frequent — but more emotionally charged — violence. It’s a film that sneaks up on you and pulls you in, thanks in large part to the assist from Giancarlo Prete’s performance. In my opinion, he’s the true hero of the film (and not coincidentally, its ultimate victim), the anchor that reels in Nero even when Nero’s at his most bug-eyed and outrageous. I also really like the way Street Law handles its violence. At no point is Franco Nero’s character any good at what he does. A couple scenes stand out for me. The first is when Nero botches a meeting and ends up imprisoned by the gang he’s seeking to undo. They tie him up and drag him through the mud (don’t they know dragging Franco Nero through the mud is what gives him his invincible Django powers???), all while an instrumental version of “Goodbye My Friend” screams on the soundtrack. Nero’s face during this scene is priceless, going from unmitigated horror to complete confusion to glassy-eyed disconnection. Actors often tend to overplay terror, but if you’ve ever been scared — I mean well and truly “I’m going to die” kind of scared, you might find that it’s a very different experience from the knuckle-biting, head-clasping, shrieking portrayal of it in film. There’s a point at which the brain tries to cope by simply shutting parts of itself down, or so it feels, which leaves you looking less like an actor doing “terrified” and more like someone who is just drunk or totally out of it.

Nero’s Carlo escapes with the help of Prete’s Tommy — and is almost immediately caught again, which leads to a fantastic sequence in which one of the thugs toys mercilessly with Nero, threatening to run him down and doing the automobile equiavlent of “dance, mother fucker, dance!” until a freak oversteering causes the criminal to wreck the car and find himself prostrate at Carlo’s feet in the worst of circumstances — those circumstances being when Carlo has been run ragged past the point of humanity and has gone totally feral…with a shovel well within reach. It becomes the movie’s most overt “what have you become???” moment, thanks again to Tommy serving as the film’s conscience, but even then it’s not played as you would expect. Carlo, wild-eyed and streaked with blood and mud, seems completely bewildered — but not necessarily repentant or aghast at the bloodlust that seized him. His primary concern seems to be not that he has become an animal but that he might get arrested for murder. It is once again Tommy, the endlessly put-upon thief, who sees the moral repugnance of what is happening to our main character.

The film’s other stand-out action sequence is the finale, shot in a sparsely stocked warehouse that augments the smallness of our characters. Once again, Carlo is not all that adept as an angel of vengeance and rather than turning into some stone-cold killing machine, spends most of the shoot-out pinned down and cowering behind a stack of crates — even when Tommy is right in front of him, getting shot up by the bad guys. It’s a damning moment for Carlo, but also one that is perfectly comprehensible. Movie heroics don’t really work, and as would happen in real life in a similar situation, rather than leaping through the air in slow motion with two guns blazing, Carlo is utterly helpless and incapable of doing anything. Similarly, Tommy’s anguish is executed in a much more realistic fashion than one usually gets in movies. There is no heroic sacrifice, no “save yourself” or “give ‘em hell, buddy” dying moment. No, when Tommy get shot, it hurts. He cries. He begs for help from Carlo. He reacts, at least through much of the ordeal, like a real person suffering real wounds. Once again, Street Law reminds us that the thrill of violence can be swiftly snuffed out by the reality of the suffering it causes.

I love writing about poliziotteschi purely because the nature of the films gives you so much to think about, all the while never once forgetting to drench you with ultra-bloody squibs, car crashes, and guys brandishing shotguns while shouting and wearing balaclavas. But they rarely let you relish the violence without also forcing you to contemplate the costs. Street Law, while I was viewing it, struck me as a very good example of the genre without being one of my favorites. The more I let it simmer in my mind, however, and the more I realized how complex and ambitious its philosophy was, the more my appreciation for it grew. I’d now rank it up at the top of the list, right alongside greats like the aforementioned High Crime, Violent Naples, and a couple others I’ve yet to tackle on Teleport City, like From Corleone to Brooklyn, The Cynic The Rat and The Fist, and Bandits in Milan. It’s a really fantastic movie, with a great score, brutal violence, and incredible performances by both Franco Nero and, even more so, Giancarlo Prete. Castellari is best known in the United States for his silly (if enjoyable) sci-fi and fantasy films from the 80s, but the first half of the 1970s and the Eurocrime genre saw the man at the top of his game, making amazing action films that far exceeded their superficial classification as Italian knock-offs of Death Wish or Dirty Harry.

Release Year: 1974 | Country: Italy | Starring: Franco Nero, Giancarlo Prete, Barbara Bach, Renzo Palmer, Nazzareno Zamperla, Massimo Vanni, Romano Puppo, Renata Zamengo, Franco Borelli, Mauro Vestri | Screenplay: Arduino Maiuri | Director: Enzo G. Castellari | Cinematography: Carlo Carlini | Music: Guido & Maurizio De Angelis | Original Title: Il cittadino si ribella