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The Violent Professionals
(1973)
 

Director: Sergio Martino                           
Cast:
Luc Merenda, Richard Conte, Silvano Tranquilli


Today, the Italian film industry is just a shell of what it used to be. Though there are still a few brave Italians today who make real movies (read: escapist entertainment) like Dario Argento, the usual product coming out of the country these days is more or less arty fare. It can be hard at times to believe that until the collapse of the industry in the late '80s, Italy was one of the biggest producers of movies not just in Europe, but in the world, and managed to export their movies everywhere. Though they started with making arty fare like The Bicycle Thief in the first few years after the war ended, they soon started to make movies for real men. First there was the sword-and-sandal craze from the late '50s to the early '60s, then came the spaghetti western craze from the mid '60s to the early part of the '70s - practically everyone knows about the Italian penchant for those genres. 

Less known (at least outside of Europe) is the subsequent genre Italians got crazy about in the '70s - the crime/police genre, which was Don't blame me for this shot - that's how most of this movie looks likeprobably created by the popularity of American movies in the period like Dirty Harry and The French Connection, though frequently adding an Italian creation (the Mafia) to the mix to give it that home-grown feeling. I've seen several of these movies - Scarface Killer and The Cop In Blue Jeans, among others - and I think I know why this particular Italian genre never made it big over here. What I've seen has been passable at best, which isn't that often; most of these movies simply aren't that good. They generally boast low budgets and the direction, cinematography, editing etc. all come across as amateurish. It probably isn't surprising that it can be hard to find one of these movies at your local video store - the few that were released were in the early days of video, so a lot of the cassettes have disappeared. Plus, none of them got enough of a cult status to warrant any kind of re-release. If you absolutely have to see one of these movies, however, I would recommend you watch (if you can find it) The Violent Professionals. That's not to say it works overall, but unlike others of its kind, it does manage at times to show and properly execute the elements we expect to find in this genre.

One of the most interesting things about The Violent Professionals is that at the beginning it manages to start up and stay, at least for a while, at the right note. It not only delivers us the stuff that we are expecting from a violent Italian crime thriller, but it also has a refreshing self-awareness that makes it clear that everyone involved was taking things with a slight tongue-in-cheek attitude. This is best illustrated in the opening sequence, where police lieutenant Giorga (Merenda) is returning home one morning after a long night. He bumps into his police friend Giano, and they make small talk. Seems Giano is on his way to an armoured train that will be transporting some criminals to another city. They're pretty dangerous and psychotic criminals, but hey, it's "money for all those mouths at home." You can't help but smile at a movie that so blatantly stamps DEAD MEAT on a guy.

Of course, Giano shortly gets killed by the convicts when they stage the inevitable escape plan. And of course, Giorga is pissed off enough by this so that he joins the manhunt. When the convicts are cornered and start raising their hands, he jumps in and blows away the surrendering fugitive. One or two of the ten or so witnessing cops raise some (mild) objections, but they are shot down when someone says, "They were armed! If the lieutenant fired, it means the lieutenant had to fire." Even Giorga's police chief boss doesn't seem to object to cold-blooded murder; though he later mutters to Giorga in his office "You shouldn't have done that," he also indicates that the worst Giorga may have to face is a temporary suspension. 

Though before he can help Giorga get through that, the chief is murdered, possibly "Okay, you've got the 'safe' sign down.  Now let's work on 'out'."  (Caption provided by Devin P. McCullen)by a certain secret criminal organization he just happened to briefly mention to Giorga that he was investigating. Though suspended, Giorga is royally pissed, and vows to bring the guilty party to justice his way (that is, if you call cold-blooded murder justice.) Anyway, he seems to know that to uncover a secret criminal organization such as this, you have to investigate in an unorthodox manner. That's the only way I can explain his following actions; first, he does nothing but drive in his car for six months. Then he robs a hooker at gunpoint and slaps the spit out of her knife-wielding pimp, afterwards taking over the pimping duties himself. Then he finds an elderly riverside fisherman and half-drowns him in the river. And after that, he tries to weasel out of a lost bet he makes at the local pool hall. When the members of the other party object, he then beats the crap out of them with his pool cue. Yeah, it makes no sense, but since immediately after that pool hall fight, he manages to meet a likely suspect that he starts investigating, so I can't really deny that this investigating got results.

If you think that this sounds like a remarkably goofy movie, you're right. There are a number of other very strange touches in the movie, such as when Giorga, while undercover, is told to take off his clothes and change into another outfit while the bad guys watch - with no explanation given. There's the mansion in the middle of the city filled with squatting hippies, as well as confusing dubbing with makes references to a District Attorney (?) as well as the surprising fact  that the guillotine was used by Italy as well as France. The misguided dubbing job does bring some amusement, but it also brings some confusion as well. Maybe it was in the original script, maybe some important information got cut out before the American release, but the deep mystery that Giorga eventually starts to uncover - something about a revolutionary group - is quite hard to figure out. About all we find out is that there is a revolutionary group - we don't find out how exactly it is being run by these thieves, or even what kind of politics these radicals are trying to set forth. 

These unclear motivations become quite frustrating at times; even though Giorga seems to have some idea as to what's going on, we sure as hell don't. In fact, a lot of the mystery is apparently solved by both Giorga Mamma mia! Italians love their spaghetti so much, they have tomato sauce in their veins!coincidently seeing something at the right time, as well as just barging into one of the bad guy's office's to beat the necessary information out of him - not exactly inspired screenwriting. And even after all that, by the end of the movie I still had a lot of questions as to what was what, who was who, etc. It's hard to get engaged in a movie if the central story is hard to follow, though it's also hard to get engaged when the story is boring. Not long after Giorga's pool hall fight, the inspired attitude that was evident previously evaporates before our eyes. What follows is mostly a talkathon and a walkathon, with Giroga talking to one person, walking to somewhere else so he can talk to another person, going out again so he can talk to another party, and so on. It's all quite boring, especially since little to none of this uncovers anything of real importance. In fact, there is so much of this, that the inevitable scene when the undercover Giorga is hired by the gang doesn't occur until two-thirds of the movie is over.

Note that I said that this part of the movie is mostly tired and pointless. There is some action that occurs sporadically, and it does have merit worth writing about. First, there are some entertaining car chases - though not all of the entertainment you get from watching them comes from the fast driving and the stunts. You see, the police cars and the fleeing cars of the antagonists are typical European vehicles of the day - tiny and quite cheap-looking to the eye. So seeing the police putting the pedal to the metal in their wimpy cop cars while chasing equally pathetic getaway cars is quite an amusing sight; you expect the cars to fall apart right in front of your eyes. Second, while the other action sequences generally may be a long time coming as well as being individually brief, you can find a sadistic or a perverse streak in them that you don't often find in an action movie. This includes a man being violently shot to death on a crowded street while happy music is playing on the soundtrack, an important scene concerning someone getting hit by the car lasting just five seconds long before immediately cutting to the next scene, and a screaming hostage getting a full machine gun clip fired into her. Yes, you don't ever see her twitching and bleeding corpse, but it's really the thought that counts.

Such wonders that are here are, unfortunately, not presented well in the one format (the out-of-print video from Paragon) this movie is available to audiences in North America. This movie was very obviously shot in a widescreen format, which A car chase for men who are not real menmakes it look like every other shot was filmed in extreme close-up - and what we usually see close-up is mostly the unappetizing sight of sweaty and unshaven faces. The print they used for the video transfer looks not only quite old (plenty of nicks and scratches), but the color seems off, so it appears we are seeing sickly-looking sweaty and unshaven faces. It also gives the rest of the movie a scummy look, though it does appear that the bulk of the movie was shot in really rundown areas of Italy. These uninspired locations are filmed in an uninspired fashion, which adds to the shoddy look that I talked about previously. The only scene that shows any creativity from the director is a slow-motion shot during a chase sequence- though ironically, it shows a car driving through a big pile of burning garbage. Maybe this movie isn't bad enough to be thrown on that pile, but I suspect that most viewers - despite some genuinely pleasing moments - will feel a little burned by the end.

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See also: Deadly Force, One Man Jury, Scarface Killer

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