‘The Heroin Busters’ or — Extra Fun?
Fabio Testi is an actor so manly that even his name sounds like a set of impressively bulging genitalia. Fabio is in deep cover, so deep that he adopts the name Fabio so nobody will know it’s him, Fabio. Fabio plays a small-time drug smuggler who keeps having run-ins with the cops, specifically Interpol’s perma-angry Mike Hamilton (David Hemmings) who is determined to clean up the streets of Italy of the drugs that are corrupting the nation’s youth.
Fabio is thrown into prison for smuggling drugs, or possibly his fashion sense, where he befriends a junkie who seems to know who these drug dealers are (they possibly have something to do with what appears to be an experimental theatre troupe, the perfect cover for a youth corrupting drug dealing outfit!). Busting out of prison Fabio tracks down this organisation under the ruse that he’s wanting in on a piece of their lucrative action. Yet is Fabio all that he seems? Maybe he doesn’t want to climb to the top of this criminal outfit but is more intent on bringing it down? Maybe he’s a… heroin buster?!
Enzo G. Castellari’s ‘The Heroin Busters’ (1977) is a typical example of the poliziotteschi genre in that it’s reckless, chaotic, derivative, violent, exploitative and, depending on your point of view, morally reprehensible. It utilises the ills of 70’s Italian society to power its narrative but offers zero commentary regarding these social problems rendering it completely vacuous, too (the only message I could detect is — heroin is bad). The good news is that’s exactly what you want from a poliziotteschi and even though Castellari might totally ignore any real depth or nuance he’s a skilled master when it comes to handling action, pacing and energy.
A great example of Castellari’s ability to nitro-charge a movie with a bucket load of POW! is with what I like to call the ‘Castellari Scatter’. The Castellari Scatter is when he sets up a “public” crowd scene crammed with extras to give the impression of a vérité approach. Yet this isn’t in service of verisimilitude or social realism but, as always with Casterllari, total mayhem because you can bet your ass that a car, motorbike, a shoot-out or fist-fight is going to smash its way into the scene causing every single person to frantically scarper for their lives. Indeed, Castellari indulges in this so frequently it creates an exciting sense of expectation because we know that whenever we see a load of extras pretending to be going about their unassuming day to day lives that shit’s going to immediately kick off.
It’s touches like this, along with a strong eye for visual flair, that prevents ‘The Heroin Busters’ from becoming nothing more than a routine, fairly unoriginal police thriller. For one thing, the “surprise” reveal that Fabio is actually an undercover cop is held off until way too long into the movie and the fact that it’s so blatantly obvious means it isn’t a surprise in the slightest anyway. So the film simply hits all the expected undercover cop beats, albeit with an enjoyable amount of punch, but not much else.
Where ‘The Heroin Busters’ does hit its stride and kick into full gear is in the last third which is an incredibly well handled and deftly executed extended chase sequence where Testi becomes the hunter, then the hunted and then the hunter again and involving everything from feet, cars, bikes and, finally, planes (although the plane chase is the least exciting aspect). Castellari wisely knows this is not a sprint but marathon so doesn’t expend all the energy at once but, instead, allows it to build. This really gives the chase room to breathe, for us to savour all the action and stunt-work we’re seeing as events are gradually ramped up.
The stand out sequence is a dash through a tunnel which is not only a great example of perfectly timed action but also some great design and lighting. It’s so good that Castellari has Testi running through it twice and I can totally understand why — if it looks this good then why not?
This excitement is further augmented by some nifty and fleet-fingered editing with editor Gianfranco Amicucci cutting all extraneous fat away and knowing exactly when to cut into a slice of action and when to zip onto the next (you can sense the influence of the French New Wave to some of the editing choices here).
‘The Heroin Busters’ might not be for everyone, especially those who love responsible cinema or movies with any significant depth or meaning other than delivering unadulterated entertainment. But for those who love manly undercover cops in double-denim, exploitative mayhem or watching a director who can expertly handle a stylish, extended action/chase sequence then this film is an entertaining high.