Sunday, 14 August 2011

The Heroin Busters (1977)

Country: ITALY

La vie della droga
Drug Street

The Heroin Busters was director Enzo G. Castellari’s fourth poliziotteschi flick after High Crime (1973), Street Law (1974), and The Big Racket (1976). By now Castellari was as firmly associated with adrenaline pumping contemporary set thrillers as he was with the dust and bloodshed of the Euro-western. The difference between his westerns and poliziotteschi efforts was purely cosmetic. All of these films follow the narrative structures of the western and The Heroin Busters is no exception. This particular title has a reputation for being the weak link in Castellari’s 1970’s poliziotteschi quartet, but I find it to be the most entertaining and enjoyable. It has a certain hyper-stylised excessiveness that is lacking in the other three, and whilst this might be used as a criticism by some, I find the absurdity of The Heroin Busters to be one of its charms. It has a certain operatic ebullience that distances it from the gritty aesthetics of High Crime and lacks the hard edged cynicism and despair of Street Law and The Big Racket. In short this film is a lot of fun, and it is clear the filmmakers had a lot of fun putting it together.

The screenplay by Massimo De Rita and Galliano Juso adopts a mellower tone than one normally expects in these type of films. The authorities are not the subject of a scathing attack, nor does the film attempt to develop a political critique. Instead the screenplay saves up all of its vitriol for those dealing in large quantities of narcotics. The film opens with Castellari’s regular strategy of establishing the gist of the plot with a montage. The montage that opens The Heroin Busters is easily the most ambitious yet mounted by Castellari. We get to witness the global nature of a drug cartel that operates out of New York and has subsidiaries in Hong Kong, Colombia, Amsterdam and finally Italy. Some excellent location shooting brings these exotic climes to life and shows the extent of the task that faces Interpol in breaking such a web of criminality. The representative of Interpol is the plain talking and tetchy Mike Hamilton (David Hemmings) whose irritability is often tested by the bungling dolts he is forced to work with. The task force he heads up is initially unsuccessful when an attempted sting at a hotel ends in frustration and failure.

However the foul mouthed Brit does have an ace card up his sleeve in the shape of undercover narcotics agent Fabio (Fabio Testi). Initially at least we are not certain as to where Fabio’s loyalties lie, and the screenplay chooses to labour this point rather unnecessarily. Hamilton is the only one that knows Fabio’s true position in the scheme of things, and this creates a number of tense scenes in which Fabio must prove his criminal skills in order to acquire the trust of the drug syndicate. Fabio finds himself between a rock and a hard place, and on two occassions he even has to punch Hamilton in order to maintain his cover. Perhaps the most inspired aspect of this plot idea is when Fabio decides to impress the syndicate by stealing heroin from under the noses of the authorities. Fabio’s efforts to gain the trust of the syndicate is only one narrative strand in the first part of the film. The other explores the vile cesspool of drug addiction. The films treatment of the life of addicts is brutal but naïve. These sequences lack any sense of pathos or reality. A scene in which an addict licks the remnants of his spilled drug off a toilet is exemplary of the screenplays grotesque and hysterical attitude to addiction.

This subplot which centres around the addict scum is at odds with the rest of the film. It is a bungled attempt at social purpose, and even Castellari gets in on these moments by slightly altering the style in which the scenes are shot. All this does is highlight how out of place the subplot is. The plethora of needle shots are enough to convey the iniquity, and the presentation of the villains tells us all we need to know about the milieu that Fabio is forced to move in. The films hesitancy with these moments is soon forgotten when Fabio’s cover is obliterated. He finds himself in the unenviable position of being pursued by the heavies of the cartel and the police. The pursuit of Fabio is without a doubt the highlight of the film. Fabio Testi’s physicality is truly put to the test. His willingness to perform his own stunts, and his own personal fitness, only adds to the laconic charisma he shows throughout. Extended set piece action sequences are shot in a factory, a building site, an underground train tunnel, and a site of historical significance, before ending in the skies with duelling aeroplanes. Here the stunt work reaches a peak of sublime ridiculousness when one plane swoops underneath an extremely low bridge.

One aspect which heightens The Heroin Busters is the assured brilliance of David Hemmings. Hemmings brings gravitas and grandeur to the thankless role of the hard headed Interpol chief. His subtlety and minimalism even rubs off on Fabio Testi, who puts in one of his better performances. But one cannot help thinking he was cast primarily for his physical attributes, and his ability to run and run and run. To top things off we also have a score from a Goblin fresh off the success of Deep Red (1975). They continue the moody progressive disco drive of Argento’s film, and their soundtrack adds immeasurable quality to the style and pace of the action scenes. The misstep of the addiction subplot aside, The Heroin Busters is creatively at least, the culmination of Castellari’s poliziotteschi cycle.

© Shaun Anderson 2011


  1. Good stuff as always, Shaun. I've never been crazy about this one, but Testi and Hemmings did remind me of a more action oriented pairing of Testi and Reed from REVOLVER. I think THE BIG RACKET is my fave of Castellari's crime movies. Now you only have to see DAY OF THE COBRA with Nero and Sybil Danning!

  2. I never fail to get excited at the mention of REVOLVER! It's fast becoming one of my favourite films of all time. THE HEROIN BUSTERS I like a lot, but its chicken feed compared to REVOLVER. I will make a note of DAY OF THE COBRA and look into it....Many thanks!

  3. I think I a can be safely grouped with those who find this one of Castellari's weakest crime efforts, though it is far better than the home invasion crimer Cold Eyes of Fear. Revolver is of course a different class altogether- real top tier stuff.

  4. Thanks for stopping by Nigel, it's good to see you make a rare appearance :-)

    I thought there would be more love for THE HEROIN BUSTERS, but a lot of other reviews I've read echo yours and Brian's sentiments. I seem to be in the minority. We are agreed on COLD EYES OF FEAR, a poor film in my view.

  5. Nice write-up! David Hemmings is a legend. The Heroin Busters is a blast! The action sequences are excellent. The climax rocks! Love all the chase scenes at the end.

  6. A fellow HEROIN BUSTERS enthusiast. I really do think this is Castellari's most enjoyable crime flick. It might not be his best (but I think that's arguable) but it is undeniably his most fun.

  7. I just watched HEROIN BUSTERS last night, Shaun, and couldn't agree with you more: it's one hell of a good time! A fun film indeed. It was nice to watch a poliziotteschi flick that wasn't so concerned with making a statement about the nature of crime and politics in 1970's Italy. While I loved that aspect in films like REVOLVER and STREET LAW, it was a welcome change of pace (for me, anyway) to see a flick that's main goal was to show it's audience a good time. This movie is more about just sitting back and enjoying the ride, and I did just that. For me, the scene that sums up this change in attitude is the one in which David Hemmings hitches a ride with a bra-less lass on a scooter: about to fall off, he unintentionally cups her boobs to prevent himself from tipping off backwards. After saying he's sorry, she retorts that she doesn't mind. In keeping with the "good time" attitude of this movie, he grins and goes right on cupping her globes. I guess this is my way of saying that this flick was as fun as cupping a pair of jiggly hippie-boobs!

  8. Just catching up on about three months worth of comments Greg, so apologies for the delay. I think like me, you appreciate the fun aspects of THE HEROIN BUSTERS. It lacks the earnestness and, dare I say it, po-faced, feel of Castellari's other polizio flicks HIGH CRIME, STREET LAW, and THE BIG RACKET. Of course this means in serious discussions of these four titles HEROIN BUSTERS is always likely to be dismissed as the lesser film. I enjoyed every scene with Hemmings, but yes the sequence you mentioned is very good. Fabio Testi is also on brilliant form here. I find he tends to sleepwalk through many of his films...he is for example a lot more interesting here than in THE BIG RACKET. It also has something of a global feel which is quite unusual, and helps give the film a more expansive and less parochial feel.


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