Italian cop thrillers gained a poor reputation in the 80’s and 90’s as the bottom of the shelf movies to avoid in the local library here in the UK. Cheap titles that could be purchased in larger volumes from distributors to fill shelves and add mass to a video library’s catalogue. These films were usually cheap to rent and featured some of the aspirations the public sought from on a smaller scale from the more prolific titles from Hollywood.
Whilst these films were generally made on the a limited budget, they had a quick turnaround to get them out to pull in a little money; the landscape was quite grim. Now, with hindsight, we are seeing this huge catalogue of titles be plundered for its treasure. The cream of the crop are being painstakingly remastered and celebrated almost 50 years after they slipped out.
The Heroin Busters is a perfect example of a lost gem. Envo G. Castellari put together a riveting and surprising adventure with a fabulous cast and a wonderful pace that is hard to find in modern movies.
Starting off with an ambitious globetrotting back story we see an established drug network with Fabio Testi integrating himself into it. On the flipside we have David Hemmings shaking down thugs in Rome as a tough cop in a special, secret division of the police. When Testi lands in Rome with some “product” on him a game of cat and mouse erupts diving into the underworld of Rome. Needles are pricked, guns are discharged and plot twists are exposed.
On the one hand, David Hemmings’ casting is a real ace up the sleeve. Initially I found him distracting playing a Harry Callahan/DI Reagan type. He just feels too nice, however, given time and Hemmings’ dedication wins over the audience. Hemmings leaps and bounds around the screen in the action sequences, proves entirely likeable as a colleague and unrelentingly demanding when things don’t go as planned and there is all to lose.
Fabio Testi is exceptional as the central character … Fabio. A likeable wrongdoer with a questionable taste in fashion. The film demands more of him as the runtime ticks on, Testi pushes on showing little sign of exhaustion. Working with Hemmings’ strong support the film never slows or falters as the pace and tension are ramped up.
Elsewhere in the cast is Wolfango Soldati as Gilo, a pusher coping with a lack of the great heroin in his blood. Soldati is a ghostly and sleazy sight, yet from time to time there is a glimpse of a human under his desperation. Gilo’s girlfriend played by Sherry Buchanan is added to increase his torture from which we are treated a fleeting glimpse of amazing Patrizia Webley.
The film has a sparsely used but graphic depiction of heroin use and the vagrancy associated with it, one can’t but help think that the imagery is more to shock the censors and generate a bit of chatter about the film. I would imagine Heroin Busters having a hard time with the BBFC upon its initial release.
Goblin, a frequent contributor to 70’s and 80’s Italian offerings, puts together a foot tapper of a soundtrack that keeps the action running at an increased pace. Even if the choice was made to continually play a track from the same position each time it is used and could have benefited from a little variation later in the film.
All this is exciting stuff, however, the plot, action and writing doesn’t really do anything too exceptional when compared to others of the genre, aside from an extra layer of polish added by Castellari. So, it comes as a complete surprise that The Heroin Busters second half is entirely dedicated to an exceptional chase. A chase that is as unrelenting as it is ludicrously entertaining. This expertly paced collection of action sequences swings from foot chases to car, motorcycles and planes whilst shoehorning in fist fights and gun battles on top of building sites down to the subways and everything in-between. The climax rarely lets up, even when Fabio has stopped to catch his breath the tension is ramping up as the villains are closing in, taking a moment to show Fabio’s panic and vulnerability as desperately thinks about how to escape.
During the first 40 minutes we are introduced to a steadily increasing number of villains and heavies. Each are given some lines, a little character and have some interaction with Fabio. In the latter half we are treated to Fabio facing off against each of these baddies, elevating the film over having random hoods and heavies being thrown at Fabio at every turn. This helps pace the second half as we see Fabio progress through the villainous hierarchy.
The Heroin Busters’ slower first half compliments the fast pace of the second, doing all its business upfront to allow for the thrill ride to take over in the latter, a tactic seen in The Silent Action. This is a terrific example of how a low budget Italian thriller can deliver an exciting and enjoyable experience that, whilst it doesn’t radically stand out above the rest of the genre it’s perfect entertainment.