Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Tough Ones (1976) review


Maurizio Merli (Commissioner Leonardo Tanzi), Arthur Kennedy (Vice Chief of Police Ruini), Tomas Milian (Vincenzo Moretto), Maria Rosaria Omaggio (Anna), Giampiero Albertini (Commissioner Caputo), Ivan Rassimov (Tony Parenzo), Biagio Pelligra (Savelli), Stefano Patrizi (Stefano), Luciano Catenacci (Ferdinando Gerace), Sandra Cardini (Sandra Moretto), Luciano Pigozzi (Moretto Henchman)

Directed by Umberto Lenzi

The Short Version: Lenzi teams up with Italian superstar Maurizio Merli for the first of four times in a visual charge of assault and battery playing out in 1970s crime-riddled Rome. You'll notice the lack of an actual plot, but it was planned that way; instead of a linear narrative, it's a series of brutal incidents strung together while Merli's Inspector Tanzi does some brutalizing of his own. Packed with violence, car chases, and colorfully despicable villains, Lenzi's heavily armed actioner is a TOUGH ONE to beat.

Inspector Tanzi, a Rome cop increasingly frustrated with a flawed legal system and increasing criminality, sets his gun sights on busting a crime ring ran by the powerful Ferrender. Unfortunately, the gangster is always one step ahead of the police. Tanzi then attempts to nail the kingpin by tracing his associates; including a deranged, hunchbacked slaughterhouse worker named Moretto. Tanzi's methods are unorthodox, garnering unwanted media attention and stirring the ire of his superiors; while making himself a target

The vastly underrated Umberto Lenzi was unique among his colleagues that, like him, worked in a multitude of genres. To contrast, Lenzi had a signature style that other directors in his company didn't have. You could watch one of his movies without seeing his name in the credits and be able to discern that he was indeed at the helm. With its docu-style camerawork; cold, emotionally detached characterizations; and exclamation-marked scenes of viciousness, THE TOUGH ONES is no exception.

Lenzi had already directed four crime pictures prior to this one--those being GANG WAR IN MILAN (1973), ALMOST HUMAN (1974), MAN HUNT IN THE CITY (1975), and SYNDICATE SADISTS (1975). His next in the genre, THE TOUGH ONES (aka ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH), was as varied as his four previous entries. It would be successful enough to ensure Lenzi would maintain the 'Violent Cop' formula for five of the six remaining crime movies he would direct before saying 'arrivederci' to the genre that gave him his best box office returns.

There's barely a plot in Dardano Sacchetti's script; and what little there is exists solely as a string of brutal acts perpetrated by three disparate villains whose only commonality is the violence and misery they bring to their victims. The threadbare storyline revolves around Merli's determined Inspector Tanzi trying to nail syndicate head Ferrender and being outsmarted at every turn. Incidentally, Ferrender hardly figures into the narrative at all; his character is simply a mobile with assorted scummy figures from all walks of life dangling from it. 

At the center of it all is Merli's frustrated cop exasperated at a flawed judicial system that tends to inadvertently work in the favor of felons and lawbreakers by freeing them to maim or kill again. Merli's Leonardo Tanzi compensates by constantly staying turned up to eleven, forcing Rome's miscreant population to swallow bullets and fists, beating the holy hell out of every petty crook, drug-pusher and rapist in sight. At one point, Tanzi's excessive force becomes a liability so he's taken off the Ferrender case and placed in a licensing desk job; this seems to piss him off even more and so he then begins moonlighting--accepting applications for permits by day and lowering the city's criminal employment numbers by night.

Maurizio Merli is arguably at his angriest here, never smiling or registering any emotion other than enmity and rancor. Granted, his frustration is understandable considering the actions of the lowlife's presented to us. However, Tanzi's disgruntled policeman is over the top to the point of comedy. We cheer him on but can't help but chuckle at his overzealous trigger-finger and bitchslaps gifted to the scum of the Earth who, by all intents and purposes, deserve it.

As usual with these movies, critics and communists alike ironically labeled them fascist because of, in the case of this film, Tanzi's excessive means to either get a confession or get an arrest that sometimes ends with the offender taking a permanent dirt nap. With the laws written in such a way that they seem to protect the rights of thugs more than law-abiding citizens, Tanzi's propensities were shared by the viewing audience; since said laws impacted the lives of the public at large as opposed to the politicians that passed them.

Representing ROME's softer side is Anna (played by Maria Rosaria Omaggio of Lenzi's NIGHTMARE CITY), Tanzi's overly naive, but good-natured girlfriend who believes that everyone can be rehabilitated. Over the course of the film, a handful of released delinquents ranging in age and level of criminality return to committing crimes or are killed due to their own carelessness. After a near-death experience with some of Moretto's colleagues, Anna begins to doubt her stance; although the outcome is ambiguous since there isn't a great deal of time spent with her.

Merli's cinematic MO showed a pattern between 1975-1977 and, went from letting off some steam to showing a lighter side that allowed the actor to smile a while. His crime films became more relaxed and the actor was given more room to emote and even do some comedy. Even so, it's his interchangeably hard-nosed roles in films like ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH and VIOLENT NAPLES (1976) that people remember with great affection.

Lenzi's movie has an intentionally fragmented plot wherein both upper and lower ends of the social strata make up the criminal element indigenous to ROME's savage concrete jungle. Violence doesn't recognize who is rich or poor, it simply exists everywhere.

Tomas Milian's hunchback, Vincenzo Moretto, is a seemingly small time crook working as a butcher in a slaughterhouse (and he drives a Porsche!) with a connection to Ferrender via his brother-in-law; another criminal named Savelli (played by Biagio Pelligra of Lenzi's 1979 genre farewell, FROM CORLEONE TO BROOKLYN). Milian delivers his usual superb performance, even managing to derive some initial viewer sympathy for his hunchback even though he's an evil son of a bitch. Viewers aren't aware of the depths of Moretto's cruelty till late in the movie when his physical deformity becomes a metaphor for his twisted psychosis. Till then, he's treated as a pitiable outcast.

The character was so popular Milian played him again in another Lenzi box office hit, BROTHERS TILL WE DIE (1978); a comical crime venture featuring Milian in a dual role essaying another famous Italian character on his vast resume, Monezza. Unlike ROME, the BROTHERS is a lesser effort although it is better appreciated by those familiar with the Italian slang heard throughout. Prior to playing a psycho hunchback, Milian delivered a tour de force of even more extreme villainy in Lenzi's seminal ALMOST HUMAN in 1974.

On the other end of the antagonistic spectrum is a group of young punks that not only get off on raping women, but get off on technicalities aided by their well-to-do parents. The leader of this pack is Stefano (played by Stefano Patrizi), an evil young man with an angelic face. These sections of the film allude to the Circeo Massacre that took place in the Lazio region in late September 1975. There were a handful of Italian crime movies inspired by, or based on, this murder case wherein three youths from wealthy families kidnapped and tortured two young girls.

That same year, Patrizi played basically the same role in Romolo Guerrieri's YOUNG, VIOLENT, DANGEROUS (1976). Incidentally, Tomas Milian co-stars as the relentless cop on the case, pursuing the young killers.

Elsewhere, genre regular Ivan Rassimov (star of Lenzi's MAN FROM DEEP RIVER and EATEN ALIVE!) plays a thoroughly despicable pimp named Tony Parenzo who, like the others, has a connection to Ferrender. Unfortunately, Rassimov's participation adds little to the picture other than an additional all-beef patty of sleaze on Lenzi's greasy crime burger.

With everything it has going for it, ROME is ultimately the Merli and Milian Show. 

Reportedly, producer Luciano Martino envisioned a crime epic featuring both Merli and Milian--the former having exploded onto the scene several months earlier in the successful VIOLENT ROME (1975); and the latter having become one of Italy's biggest draws from numerous westerns. The problem was that neither man liked each other. Their egos were such that in the sequel, THE CYNIC, THE RAT AND THE FIST (1977), both men reportedly shot their scenes separately and never actually shared the screen together. In ROME, they make superb foils onscreen and share a few memorable sequences together. It's unfortunate, though, that the finale is a slight disappointment considering the intensity of what came before.

It's rare a DVD or blu-ray's extras are discussed here, and this release is literally exploding with them; but one extra that this reviewer was most looking forward to was the feature length documentary on Umberto Lenzi's career. As welcome as it is, the nearly 90 minute ALL EYES ON LENZI doc is a surprising disappointment. There's not a great deal of career-spanning and so much of what is here has already been covered on previous Lenzi releases.

Yet again, lengthy, monotonous stretches are devoted to his cannibal movies and NIGHTMARE CITY (1980) with nothing new to offer on the making of them; just critics trotting out the usual buzzwords that so-called academics commonly associate with those pictures. There's no discussion of Lenzi's peplums and adventure movies; nor any mention of his spy films; and scarcely a nod to his star-studded war productions. Lenzi directed numerous big name stars from Steve Reeves to Henry Fonda and there's no conversation on the director working with any of them; nor does it appear he was even asked. It's like the makers couldn't be bothered to actually cover the man's entire career for a documentary that was supposed to do that very thing. Obviously, his giallo and crime films are covered, but it's the aforementioned extreme horror titles that are given the spotlight for the umpteenth time. The irony is that a tribute to the late Lenzi fails to cover--whether at length or even at all--films he directed for genres he took great pride in.

However, if you are curious about some of Lenzi's other pictures, such as his work in the spy genre, you can learn what it was like working with him from former peplum actor Roger Browne in our extensive interview you can read HERE.

As for ROME, it's a top tier entry in Italy's crime genre that, while virtually plotless, compensates by aggressively casting a wide net of exploitation tropes. Something of a 'greatest hits' compilation, Lenzi's tight direction coupled with Merli's machismo and Milian's misdeeds assault your senses with unstoppable entertainment value. Few films wrangled the energy of these TOUGH ONES.

This review is representative of the Grindhouse Releasing 3-disc blu-ray set (2 blu-rays and CD soundtrack). Specs and Extras: New 4K restoration; 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen; original Italian language w/English subs; English dubbed version; audio commentary w/Mike Malloy; brand new interviews with cast and crew including director Umberto Lenzi and Tomas Milian; tribute to Maurizio Merli; original international trailer; bonus CD of the soundtrack by Franco Micalizzi; liner notes by Italian crime film author Roberto Curti; still gallery; easter eggs... the first 2,500 copies contain a .30 caliber bullet pen; running time: 01:33:53

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