Sunday, August 27, 2017

Special Cop In Action (1976) review


Maurizio Merli (Commissioner Betti), Raymond Pellegrin (Arpino), John Saxon (Albertelli), Mirella D'Angelo (Luisa), Toni Ucci (Cacace), Daniele Dublino (Luizzi), Massimo Vanni (Fabbri)

Directed by Marino Girolami (as Franco Martinelli)

The Short Version: The Commissioner Betti series is capped with this, the GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY of the Tough Cop triumvirate. It's an epic denouement brought to you by the man who introduced the character, Marino Girolami (as Franco Martinelli), the father of Enzo G. Castellari. Merli is excessive force par excellence in what is easily his finest pure action film. There's shootings, car chases, stunts, and fist fights every five minutes. SPECIAL COP is certainly a Special entry in Italian Action cinema.

When he isn't trying to locate a busload of kidnapped school kids and solve a series of bank robberies, Commissioner Betti attempts to nail down the mastermind behind the crimes. Believing a smuggler named Albertelli is the kingpin, the real criminals pulling the strings want the persistent lawman out of the way; so Albertelli--who has a past with the Iron Commissioner--has Betti framed for murder. Sent to prison, Betti must now contend with dozens of thugs he put away there. It isn't long before Betti is released and he quickly turns the tables on Albertelli and his partners.

Maurizio Merli had been a bit part actor for a decade before he broke out as a leading man in 1975 starring in Girolami's VIOLENT ROME; a film that drew some inspiration from MAGNUM FORCE (1973), but owed greater allegiance to Steno's superb EXECUTION SQUAD (1972). A big hit for the actor, he returned to the role in 1976 for director Umberto Lenzi in the superior VIOLENT NAPLES. One of the finest films of its type, it stands tall alongside the best of Eastwood and Bronson. The same year Merli would play Commissioner Betti for the third and last time under Girolami's direction in SPECIAL COP IN ACTION; a film that deviates in tone and structure from the previous pictures.

If you've seen the first two movies, you'll notice Maurizio is more mello Merli this time around. He still dishes out lead justice and hard chops to the face with an open-handed fist, only he's slightly more restrained, and certainly more calculating; he takes more risks with his own life in trying to save whoever is in harm's way at that moment. By comparison, the Betti of VIOLENT ROME was like a wild west cowboy driven from policeman to vigilante; blurring the lines between law and lawlessness. For VIOLENT NAPLES, Merli's Betti retains that "I don't give a damn" approach to catching crooks and exposing corruption, but an element of pathos creeps into all that masculine attitude.

The Betti of SPECIAL COP is more refined, and fits the mold of Eastwood's Callahan more so than it did in Girolami's first go-round. Dramatically, his interpretation is more one-dimensional compared to the deeper tones of NAPLES; what little characterization that surfaced in Lenzi's classic is virtually non-existent here. Girolami's movie is more interested in giving the audience action, and Merli's fans will not be disappointed.

Each film is basically a separate adventure unrelated to each other. Merli's character is the only hold-over in the trilogy. What's uniquely frustrating about SPECIAL COP is that it has its own backstory. We discover that Betti has a past not only with some of his fellow officers, but the criminal element he's after. Unfortunately, we never learn much about these details beyond the periphery since the script isn't the least bit interested in exposition--using these ambiguous tidbits as an excuse to give the audience a chance to breathe between action sequences. 

John Saxon returns, but he's playing an entirely different gangster character from NAPLES. His portrayal of Albertelli is more flashy, aggressive, and a bit too sure of himself; very different from his seriousness playing Capuano in the previous movie. Saxon played yet another mobster in the Merli vehicle, THE CYNIC, THE RAT AND THE FIST (1977); another crimer for Umberto Lenzi. He wasn't always playing lawbreakers, though; Saxon was on the right side of the law in some entries, one such being Alberto de Martino's fireball classic, BLAZING MAGNUM (1976), oddly titled SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM for its US release.

Genre regular Raymond Pellegrin co-stars as Merli's partner. He sends for him early into the movie when he realizes his hands are too full with multiple robberies and a kidnapping case all at once. These two have a good rapport onscreen. When Arpino (Pellegrin) reveals he's retiring in a month, that's a cue for the viewer that something bad will likely happen to him later in the picture. Interestingly, we get a better feel of the working relationship of Betti and Arpino than we do the burgeoning, intimate relationship between Betti and Luisa (Mirella D'Angelo) that never even begins to simmer. 

Merli's movies occasionally had love interests, but these sometimes ended up much the way Paul Kersey's did in the DEATH WISH sequels a few years later. Other times these romantic angles weren't given chances to bloom--simply there to give Merli's cop characters a lady to rescue and swoon over him afterward. It wasn't till the tail-end of his career in THE REBEL (1980) that he was given a cop role with a heavy dose of characterization; and a female coupling with some believable passion behind it. 

The phrase "action-packed" perfectly describes SPECIAL COP IN ACTION (1976). Stunt director Goffredo Unger truly delivers some fabulous chase sequences and other instances of kinetic movement. So many of these movies were interchangeable with one another and Girolami and his crew bucks the system by cramming as many bank robberies and car chases as he possibly can to keep the film moving to its unexpected ending. Without giving anything away, if you've seen VIOLENT ROME, that film's ambiguous ending could be seen as foreshadowing for what is to come.

In Italian cinema, and especially their crime pictures, slow-motion is often overused to the extreme. You get it here too, but sparingly. Letting the action move untouched, as well as being able to see the impact of crashes at full speed, is a refreshing change of pace.

SPECIAL COP is a big bang closer to the Betti series. It's a satisfying finish to a trilogy that began coarse, yet solid; reached an apex with Umberto Lenzi's no-nonsense, brutal sensibilities; and climaxed with an explosion of adrenaline-fueled, epic action. If you're not familiar with the actor, this series is a fantastic starting point; but begin with VIOLENT NAPLES, then ROME, then SPECIAL COP. If you enjoy Tough Cop style actioners, then Merli is the man you're after.

This review is representative of the Dorado Films bluray 2 disc set (one bluray double feature of SPECIAL COP IN ACTION and WEAPONS OF DEATH and DVD of THE COUNSELLOR); Specs and Extras: 1080p 1.85:1 (both HD features; THE COUNSELLOR is 2.35:1 widescreen English only); English dub/Italian dub (English dubtitles), Italian, Spanish subs for HD feature films; original theatrical trailers for all three films; SPECIAL COP running time: 01:41:13

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Stone Killer (1973) review


Charles Bronson (Lt. Lou Torrey), Martin Balsam (Al Vescari), Jack Colvin (Lionel Jumper), Paul Koslo (Alfred Langley), Norman Fell (Captain Les Daniels), David Sheiner (Guido Lorenz), Stuart Margolin (Mr. Lawrence)

Directed by Michael Winner

The Short Version: Charles Bronson's on a Winning streak with his third film for director Michael Winner. Now in 'Tough Cop' mode, Bronson makes your day in a film that punches the clock as a quasi DIRTY HARRY (1971), while working overtime as a Mafia thriller. It's a convoluted, if violent tale of mob vengeance that crams a multitude of themes and cultural variance into a 95 minute running time. Nowhere near as linear or as orthodox as Siegel's iconic 'angry cop' classic, it's still incredibly stylish and raw all at the same time. THE STONE KILLER is bloody, occasionally grotesque in its violence, and features more variance in locations than Pam Grier's costume changes in FOXY BROWN (1974). As a bonus, there's some superb dummy deaths for mannequin masochists.

New York detective Lou Torrey is transferred to LA after a chase with a teenage criminal ends in the boy's death. Once there he immediately finds himself embroiled in a hot case after arresting a former hitman named Armitage. Learning he's wanted for murder back in New York, Torrey is then assigned to extradite him back to the Big Apple. Upon his arrival, Armitage is inexplicably gunned down outside the airport. Before he was snuffed out, Armitage loosed his lips on a future hit of some significance. This bit of info leads Torrey into a complex conspiracy involving Vietnam vets and a mobsters revenge for a 42 year old vendetta known as The Night of the Sicilian Vespers.

Bronson gets Dirty in this violent cop thriller from soon-to-be DEATH WISH director, Michael Winner. Interestingly, the controversial British filmmaker had just done a Wild West version of DEATH WISH with Bronson laying down Indian law in CHATO'S LAND (1972). While that was a warm-up for the iconic, modern-day vigilante favorite, Winner next turned Bronson into a hitman with THE MECHANIC (1972).

Following up his tale of an assassin and his young apprentice, Winner does an immersive, if convoluted, imitation of Siegel's DIRTY HARRY (1971). But whereas the Eastwood classic is far more linear in its narrative, Winner's film requires your undivided attention. This is one of those movies where you want to make your snacks BEFORE you sit down to watch it. 

Based on John Gardner's book, 'A Complete State of Death', this cinematic adaptation begins on very familiar ground, with Bronson uttering Callahanian dialog while his superiors rub his excessive style the wrong way. In the book (what few details I've gathered about it), Torrey's first name is Derek, and comes from Scotland Yard. The storyline is a bit different and sleazier than its celluloid counterpart.

The plot literally thickens after ten minutes when new characters are introduced--some of whom are quickly killed off in hails of machine gun fire. At the thirty, we've got Vietnam vets, flamboyant hitmen (like MR. MAJESTYK's Paul Koslo), and Bronson as the chisel-faced cop trying to put the pieces together... just like the viewer will be doing if you're not paying close attention. And if that weren't enough, there's a hippie commune and black panthers added to the mix. Soon after, it becomes clear the heart of the film lies in a 42 year old Sicilian vendetta for a massacre that occurred in April of 1931.

With an epic number of characters to contend with, Gerald Wilson's script is a little too ambitious for a 95 minute movie. It feels a bit thin in places, especially considering it's crowded with every crime trope and social strata of the time period. Some of these feel arbitrary, and do nothing to make the film less confusing for anyone that may have ADD.

The picture, enterprising in scope as it is, could've used a bit more meat on the bones. For example, the film touches on the damage done to those who have returned from the war. The usage of 'Nam vets is integral to the storyline, but we get little insight into these men; and not much more as to why Vescari chooses them for his revenge other than referring to them as 'Stone Killers', or outsiders.

Delving into Mafia traditions and how they've regressed over the years, a little more elaboration into Vescari's disenchantment with changing syndicate customs would've given that character more weight. Played by Martin Balsam, the film revolves around his deep-seated vendetta; yet secondary villains tend to dominate the film with Balsam's Vescari popping in on occasion to remind you who the real bad guy is. One of his character's best moments is inside a church where a lies during a confessional; this leading into an ambiguous ending.

Balsam played another mob boss that same year in Alberto De Martino's outstanding IL CONSIGLIORI (COUNSELOR AT CRIME); one of many THE GODFATHER-inspired movies coming out of Italy at that time. Two years earlier, Balsam was essaying the role of a jaded policeman in Damiano Damiani's genre classic CONFESSIONS OF A POLICE CAPTAIN (1971). In 1985, Balsam would turn up in another Bronson movie, DEATH WISH 3; in that film, the two men have a grand rapport between them. Surprisingly, neither men share a scene in THE STONE KILLER.

Unlike Eastwood's Callahan, Bronson's Torrey has a somewhat better grasp on his temper. Often phlegmatic, quick-witted, and a bit philosophical, Torrey is a multi-faceted personality. Bronson himself is more or less interchangeable from his other Winner roles, yet the 1970s provided him with a far greater selection of differing roles than the 1980s did.

Despite being made so soon after Siegel's movie, Winner's pseudo-duplicate feels less like DIRTY HARRY than later Bronson coppers like the grandiosely sleazy 10 TO MIDNIGHT (1983) and MURPHY'S LAW (1986).

Prior to this movie, Bronson starred in THE VALACHI PAPERS (1972), another De Laurentiis production based on a novel, and a film that was specifically about the code of the Mob. It's recommended as well.

The action sequences are well done if few and far between during the first seventy minutes; after that, things pick up considerably, culminating in an eye-opening, vicious denouement packed with blood squibs and bodies spiraling from high altitudes. If you're a connoisseur of dummy deaths, THE STONE KILLER has some of the finest examples of mannequin abuse in all of cinema history.

Additionally, one of the film's greatest assets is the variety in locations. There's a new one seemingly every couple of minutes. Winner and his crew revel in the grime and chipped paint of urban cityscapes; the colorful, cramped environs of local dives; and even the open isolation of the desert. As complicated as the narrative can be at times, it's multitude of settings gives the picture an ambitious scope.

On a minor note, if you're a fan of the comedy series THREE'S COMPANY, two of that programs stars are in this movie--a young John Ritter and Norman Fell.

Fans of Charles Bronson and 70s crime pictures are the prime targets of THE STONE KILLER. Next to the films it emulates like DIRTY HARRY (1971), THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) and THE GODFATHER (1972), it's fairly obscure; and that's a shame, as it's just as stylish and well-made as those movies, if a little too ambitious for its own good.

This review is representative of the Twilight Time bluray. Specs and Extras: 1080p 1.85:1; region A; isolated music track; audio commentary with Bronson biographer Paul Talbot; original theatrical trailer. Limited to 3,000.

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