‘The Tough Ones’ or — Miraculously Turning Sin into a Virtue?

“Why the hell am I watching this?” I thought last night as Umberto Lenzi’s ‘The Tough Ones’ (1975) hit me with a second piece of nasty, sordid horribleness in as many minutes and leaving me shaking my head in utter disapproval. “There’s no plot, morality, social commentary, character development, intelligence, subtext, text or taste in the slightest!” Five minutes later these weaknesses not only didn’t bother me but I found myself champing at the bit to see what new piece of tasteless, immoral, repugnant, sordid idiocy ‘The Tough Ones’ was going to throw at me next. I was egging the movie on. I had been corrupted. I didn’t mind.

‘The Tough Ones’, or to give it its more exciting original Italian title — ‘Rome Armed to the Teeth’, is about angry police Inspector Leonardo Tanzi (Maurizio Merli) and his attempts to punch everyone in Rome in the face until there is nobody left to punch. He punches suspects, witnesses, lovers, colleagues, anyone, everyone. Halfway through I was relieved Tanzi didn’t own a cat.

The reason Tanzi is so angry is because Rome is going to hell. Young people are cynical and incapable of compassion (this is why Tanzi must punch compassion into them), there’s a liberal justice system allowing criminals to walk free and, most infuriating of all, there’s a French gangster working with a homicidal hunchback giving Tanzi the run-around. Italy is a mess so Tanzi’s going to clean it up…by punching it clean.

And that, at first glance, sums up ‘The Tough Ones’ perfectly — a nasty little mess. The main story focus, tracking the gangster and hunchback (played by the ever unrestrained Tomas Milian), disappears for a bulk of the movie meaning we’re essentially doing nothing more than following Tanzi about from one horrific crime to the next and which are only included to justify Tanzi committing some equally awful piece of violence in return. It’s a conveyer belt of exploitation and that risks, and achieves, repetition.

And then, about halfway through, Tanzi’s partner turns up at a crime scene, looks at Tanzi and the surrounding carnage, shakes his head and in a totally unexpected fourth wall break coming from total left-field mutters “I really can’t believe they wrote the script this way” and walks off! And that’s when ‘The Tough Ones’ fully clicked into place because Tanzi might be scowling his way through this whole movie but the film itself has been heavily winking at us the entire time. It just takes a while to notice.

When I realised that Lenzi was taking the piss and that ‘The Tough Ones’ might be a parody I not only warmed to the movie but, and I’m ashamed to admit this, started actively cheering the violence and mayhem on. Before I’d been disgusted by its nihilistic attitude but now I was desperate to see just how off the rails it would go. And the movie didn’t disappoint.

Because ‘The Tough Ones’ doesn’t have an actual plot as such it means it doesn’t need to get bogged down by the needless weight of things such as coherence or structure and, instead, simply hurls itself headlong into as many varied and crazy situations as possible, and at breakneck speed too. There might not be many extended chase sequences (apart from a blinder involving an ambulance near the end) or grand set pieces but rather the action, of which there is a lot, is threaded almost evenly throughout the entire run-time meaning ‘The Tough Ones’ hardly takes it foot off the pedal for an instant.

For example — some thugs commit a crime so we know Tanzi will soon pop up and punch them. But this is something he does not in the next scene but, frequently, in what seems like the next edit. Just — BAM! There he suddenly is, punching away! The film is edited to within an inch of its life meaning there’s practically no breathing space and resulting in 90 minutes of pure, unbroken exploitation and morally dubious carnage. For all its flaws, issues and problems the one thing you can’t accuse ‘The Tough Ones’ of for a single second is being boring.

This energy is complemented by an incredibly propulsive score by Franco Micalizzi which borrows heavily from American 70’s scores such as ‘Dirty Harry’ and ‘The Taking of Pelham 123’ and comes pretty close to matching them both in terms of dynamism. Lenzi’s direction is quick and to the point, the stunt-work very possibly illegal (I’d be surprised if they had permission for ANYTHING they do in this movie) and the acting is… well, if you’re familiar with Milian and Merli you’ll know what to expect.

‘The Tough Ones’ is an absolute blast of a film although I wouldn’t suggest it to newcomers of the poliziotteschi genre as it’s too chaotic to be coherent, too ridiculous to be taken seriously and of such a strong and nasty flavour that it pulls the gums back from your teeth once bitten into. If you’re a fan of these movies already, however, then its unhinged energy, frenetic pacing, hilarious uber-macho dialogue and sly satirical tone will be irresistible.

By the time the end credits rolled I was still shaking my head at what ‘The Tough Ones’ had done to entertain me, although I’d be lying if I didn’t also admit to having a huge grin on my face as I did.

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.