Poliziotteschi is but one of the many waves of Italian exploitation and one that takes American inspiration — Dirty Harry, The Godfather, Death Wish — and uses it to explore the Years of Lead, a time of social unrest, political upheaval, political and terrorism, rising crime and outfight mob warfare from the 1960s to 1980s. Much like the vigilante films that followed in the path of Paul Kersey, many of these movies exploit conservative fears of crime and protests.
Umberto Lenzi is a maniac, as we all know and potentially adore. From his Eurospy (008: Operation Exterminate, Kriminal, Super Seven Calling Cairo, The Spy Who Loved Flowers) and giallo films (I recommend anything he did with Carroll Baker, such as Orgasmo, Knife of Ice, So Sweet…So Perverse, A Quiet Place to Kill and Spasmo as well as non-Baker giallo such as Seven Blood-Stained Orchids and Oasis of Fear) to inventing the cannibal film with The Man from Deep River and expanding on it with Eaten Alive! and Cannibal Ferox, as well as wild later films like Ghosthouse, Nightmare City, Hitcher in the Dark and Nightmare Beach, I’m a big fan. I even love his TV movies House of Lost Souls and House of Witchcraft.
As with most Italian exploitation filmmakers — as you can tell — Lenzi jumped genre often. He also made a ton of poliziotteschi like Gang War In Milan, Almost Human, Manhunt In the City, Syndicate Sadists, Free Hand for a Tough Cop, Violent Naples, Brothers Until We Die, From Corleone to Brooklyn and The Cynic, The Rat and the Fist.
What sets his take on the form apart is apparent in a review from Variety that says that this film contains “…little idealism and much violence for the sake of violence.”
You say that like it’s a bad thing.
Lenzi had been sent a spy script for Roma ha un segreto (Rome Has a Secret) that he felt was boring and made no sense. He wanted a movie that was about the violence that Rome was living through and wrote the script for this movie — Roma a mano armata (Rome at Gunpoint) — in a week.
Inspector Leonardo Tanzi (Maurizio Merli) looks exhausted. And if you were him, you would be as well. He’s dealing with gangsters operating in his beloved Rome and he’s just one man against an onslaught of criminal activity that doesn’t operate under the same rules that he’s forced to obey.
His latest case has him tracking a French criminal and even when he arrests one of his henchmen, the one-armed Savelli, he’s forced to release him without charge. Hours later, he kills a guard during a daring bank robbery. To track him down, they try to question his hunchbacked Savelli’s hunchbacked brother-in-law Vincenzo Moretto (Tomas Millian, who pretty much runs away with this movie), a slaughterhouse worker who refuses to even speak to the cops, even after they plant drugs on him. He’s smarter than them, as he uses his watch to slice his own wrists and promises to tell the newspapers that the police did it. Fearing a scandal, he’s released and Tanzi gets demoted by Vice-Commissioner Ruini (Arthur Kennedy, who after The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue I always see as a gruff and overbearing bad cop) to a desk job writing licenses and permits.
Three of the hunchbacked maniac’s associates kidnap Tanzi’s girlfriend Anna (Maria Rosaria Omaggio) and threaten her in a junkyard, showing her how they plan on crushing her in the wreckage of a junked car. She’s so traumatized that she can’t even recognize them; Tanzi replies by tracking down Moretto and making him swallow a bullet. By attacking his manhood in that way, now Moretto plans to kill the cop one on one by using the very bullet Tanzi made him eat.
Any time Tanzi thinks he’s getting ahead of the case and getting close to finding French gangster Ferrender or Savelli, Moretto is there to kill witnesses like heroin dealer Tony Parenzo (Ivan Rassimov). He also stages a bank robbery, which Tanzi interrupts by emerging from the air conditioning ducts a decade or so before Die Hard and wipes out most of the Hunchback’s gang, leading to the criminal stealing an ambulance and killing numerous innocent bystanders.
The game between Tanzi and Moretto only increases in ferocity until by the end of the film, there’s no alive in dead or alive.
When Aquarius Releasing distributed this film in the U.S., they changed the title to Brutal Justice and replaced establishing shots with American locations in an attempt to make it seem more like a domestic film, which only makes the resulting remix an example of surrealism. They also recut the movie for video release as Assault with a Deadly Weapon, creating a new title sequence with a skull-faced police officer and adding credits for cast and crew members who do not appear and did not make this film.
This movie was a huge deal in Italy, as the character of Tanzi would return in The Cynic, The Rat and the Fist and also appear in nine more films in this genre. And despite the way this movie ends, Millian would play Moretto again in Lenzi’s Brothers Till We Die, a film that has him play a dual role and also bring back his character of Sergio Marazzi from Free Hand for a Tough Cop. This movie is like the Italian crime cinematic universe, as we learn that Moretto and Marazzi are twin brothers. Millian would go on to play Marazzi in Stelvio Massi’s Destruction Force, Bruno Corbucci’s Uno contro l’altro, praticamente amici and Francesco Massaro’s Il lupo e l’agnello. By those last two movies, the character had moved past its crime origins and began to be the protagonist of more comedic films.
The Grindhouse Releasing blu ray of The Tough Ones is the best way to watch this film. It has the original unrated and uncensored director’s cut in 4K. The extras — as always from Grindhouse — go way beyond, such as audio commentary by Mike Malloy, director of Eurocrime!; in-depth interviews with director Umberto Lenzi, actors Tomas Milian, Maria Rosaria Omaggio, Sandra Cardini, Maria Rosaria Riuzzi and Corrado Solari, screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti and composer Franco Micalizzi; a special tribute to Maurizio Merli with appearances by Enzo Castellari and Ruggero Deodato; a vintage VHS intro by cult movie superstar Sybil Danning that was on the Adventure Video VHS release; the original international theatrical trailer; liner notes by Italian crime film expert Roberto Curti; a deluxe embossed slip cover and an original soundtrack album by Franco Micalizzi.
You can get it from Grindhouse Releasing with my highest recommendation.