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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Highway Racer (1977) review


Maurizio Merli (Marco Palma), Giancarlo Sbragia (Command Sgt. Taliaferri), Angelo Infanti (Jean Paul Dosena/The Insua Kid), Lilli Carati (Francesca)

Directed by Stelvio Massi

"Doing a bank job with you is...well...not work at all, but fun, like playin' a game! And besides, you're famous...a household name!"

Marco Palma is a high strung, fast driving cop. Butting heads with his superior, Command Sergeant Taliaferri, who was previously a specialist in high speed pursuits, Palma wishes to be the same. Recklessly trashing whatever car he's given, Palma is hellbent on arresting a gang that has been pulling off bank robberies in San Paolo, Rome. With the leader being a racing expert, Palma inadvertently kills his partner during a destructive high speed chase in which the crooks get away yet again. Feeling grief over the death of his partner, Palma plans to retire. His boss, Taliaferri, seeing potential in his hard driving methods decides to take him under his wing to bring in the daredevil crooks.

Maurizio Merli stars in one of two films he did with former cinematographer, Stelvio Massi in 1977. The other one was POLIZIOTTO SENZA PAURA (POLICEMAN WITHOUT FEAR; FEARLESS) with Joan Collins. HIGHWAY RACER is an immensely fun and highly entertaining movie that gives the publicly loved and inspiring actor to play a slightly different character than normal. His character Marco Palma is only interested in fast cars and the thrill of the chase. He's irresponsible and acts as though everyone were out to get him including his girlfriend. Palma bears a great deal of competition, enviousness and reverence for his superior because of his past service and road skills in successfully making arrests.

Merli has his trademark attitude, but here, it's channeled a bit differently. He's not the champion of the oppressed and terrorized public. It's more of an extension of those violent cop roles he made popular in the films of Girolami and Lenzi prior to his working relationship with Stelvio Massi. The world inhabited in HIGHWAY RACER (1977) is one filled with race car drivers that happen to be bank robbers and the police are seemingly powerless to stop them. Palma wants to make arrests, but his driving skills takes precedence over everything else. Unusually, the whole crime aspect takes a back seat to all the rough and tumble car chases, smash ups and stunt car driving...and that's not a bad thing.

There's also a lighter tone inherent in the script. Both Palma and his partner have some choice comedic moments together during the first 30 minutes just before his partner is killed in a crash. Deaths are also limited here and I think only two people are killed throughout.

The main villain, Dosena, alias 'The Insua Kid', isn't the typical antagonist found in these movies. He's more concerned with the exhilaration of eluding capture than anything else, as well as viewing the robberies as a game. Dosena even refers to the cops as his opponents and derives no pleasure from using guns to kill, only as a means to hold his captives at bay while he and his men make off with the loot.

Dosena's cavalier attitude towards the law is brought to the fore when he goes to visit his old adversary, Command Sergeant Taliaferri. It is here where you learn more about both characters and their past rivalry. This scene also gives more weight to the father/son relationship between Palma and his boss. Palma wants to be the same great 'Flying Squad' member his superior was in his younger days. Taliaferri sees it in him and takes Palma under his wing to hone his skills so he can finally bring in the 'Insua Kid'. Having previously spent six years in prison, Taliaferri can't make an arrest on Dosena as no one has made an accurate description since he and his accomplices all wear helmets during the holdups.

Later on, once Palma has been recruited as the test subject to infiltrate Dosena's gang, he's given a new name (Moreno) and background. He soon manages to ingratiate himself on the speed demon clique becoming fast friends with Insua. However, a kink is quickly thrown into the mix once a bank job is set into place. Palma's girlfriend, Francesca sees him out one afternoon and unwittingly gives his true identity away to Dosena! Here is where the film disappointed me slightly. I was expecting the bad guys to take Fran hostage leading to a high speed chase driving the suspense level up a bit since Palma's woman has been put in danger. She is quickly shoved away and the whole set up of getting into the gang via a secret identity is discarded almost as fast as one of the many car chases.

Even still, the whole movie is an enjoyably rousing affair and damn good entertainment. Although I wouldn't call it one of the greatest ever made, it's a helluva good time and the best Massi movie I've seen in terms of entertainment value. HIGHWAY RACER (1977) definitely holds a lot of rewatch value and if you can get over Merli in a different role than normal, you should have no problem enjoying this one. Merli even shaves off his familiar mustache. The much loved actor would seemingly be trying to break free of the tough cop mold as he was rather unjustly pigeonholed as a Franco Nero clone. No doubt he's much better in this role than Nero, but it would seem this type of character was inescapable for Merli. The same year he would also headline a spaghetti western, MANNAJA (1977) directed by the fine director of many genres, Sergio Martino.

After his valiant efforts to experiment (but not straying too far away from his formula characters), Merli was back in the fold as the tough cop in THE CYNIC, THE RAT & THE FIST (1977). Merli was too good at these types of cop roles and he was forever stereotyped. In March of 1989, Merli would die during a tennis match after overexerting himself. He was 49 years old. Who knows just where his career would have taken him had he lived. HIGHWAY RACER may not appeal to those expecting a typical violent cop role from Merli, but those open to change will definitely get a super charged dose of entertainment from this stunt filled actioner from one of the Italian crime genres most prolific directors, Stelvio Massi.

This DVD is available at TRASH-ONLINE. The site is linked below...

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