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Heroin Busters, The
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by Jack Sommersby

"The Best of the Italian Crime Pics"
4 stars

It's highly derivative but also highly entertaining, with a forceful narrative drive that keeps the jackhammer action coming with the velocity of a locomotive.

Fabio Testi has a tantalizing screen presence that keeps you watching throughout the action-crime extravaganza The Heroin Busters. Bearded with a boyish face, he looks like tv's Greg Evigan, has an effortless appeal along with a playfully devious smile that lets you know he's capable of being quite the naughty boy when the need arises. Playing Fabio (yes, you read that right), a deep-undercover narcotics officer, he gets in fistfights, gunfights and chases every few minutes, and it helps that this adequate, charismatic actor does virtually all of his own stunts. We even see him jump from a building onto a truck two stories down without looking even remotely the worse for wear. In far too many films you can always tell where the actor ends and the stuntman begins, because either the stuntman is a hoary lookalike or the director hasn't shot the sequence to adequately hide the stuntman's face (just think back to those '80s B-movies with Burt Reynolds and Charles Bronson). Here, Testi gets quite the workout, running and shooting guns and sliding down an escalator arm and falling all about, and so much so you feel he should have drawn both an actor's and a stuntman's pay. And it doesn't hurt that he can act, which can't exactly be said for the majority of the actors in the film, though this is far from a liability.

The Heroin Busters is mostly set in Italy, but it starts out in Amsterdam then Hong Kong then Columbia then back to Amsterdam and back to Hong Kong then to New York and then finally to Rome. We're following a trail of heroin being tracked by Mike Hamilton (Blow-Up's David Hemmings) as part of an international task force working out of Italy with help from Interpol; knowing America is the ultimate destination for the drugs, he's looking at breaking the distribution string. He's not interested in nabbing the small-time dealers and carriers, just the main people they're working for, the fat cats who have others take on the more dangerous duties on the streets. Fabio, working with Hamilton, infiltrates the dealers in the area by posing as a big buyer and winds up on the receiving end of lots of double-crosses by drug associates with itchy trigger fingers and a lust for every dollar they can get their hands on. Clean and easy deals are not the law of the land here, and Fabio finds himself in more dangerous situations than he can count; he has no police back-up to count on, and on many occasions he finds himself shot at by the very same police officers whose side he's on. Fabio's playing both sides, and it's fun watching him weave his way through the drug underworld with a maestro's ease and confidence but still getting caught with his pants down now and again. It's fitting that he should act as the hero, as opposed to the suit-and-tie Hamilton, who has his own problems trying to keep Fabio out of trouble without blowing his cover -- they're even forced to punch each other on two different occasions to give the illusion of cop-versus-criminal.

There's not a lot of plot here, and that's fine, because co-writer/director Enzo G. Castellari is interested in action and movement and timing. There's a wonderful sequence where the police look to bust a well-dressed man carrying a supply of drugs into his hotel but they don't know where he's keeping them. Disguised as hotel clerks and window-washers, they follow the man and then his luggage, which leads to a revelation that's beautifully realized and affirms you're in the capable mitts of a director who's quite good at manipulation and for staging a centerpiece of action with tact (it's akin to the museum/briefcase sequence from John McTiernan's remake of The Thomas Crown Affair). But this is nothing compared to the final twenty minutes or so, with a chase that starts out in a drug warehouse to a construction site to a subway tunnel then with motorcycles through an archaeological ruin that culminates in one airplane chasing the other, with the fantastic score by Goblin helping drive the action home. Castellari seems to be saying, "Look, I can give you standardized action that you've seen before that's padded with endless stock-movie dialogue, but how about I take you for a real ride for a change?" This isn't to say there isn't a fair share of familiar characters and rote dialogue, but it's all scattered throughout in bearable amounts punctuated by the director's keen visual sense and valid film sense of when to cut from one scene to the next while keeping our apprehensive levels suitably enlivened.

The Heroin Busters is more cartoonish than muscular, as if Castellari were more interested in making an exaggerated fun The French Connection rather than a coherent rendition of it. The main villain is seldom seen and wears an atrocious hairpiece. The other bad guys are a bone-hard batch who look and sound like inmates from the most stereotypical prison-flick ever committed to celluloid. Fabio is not only handsome but kind-hearted to a young druggie and not only can ride a cycle like Evel Knievel but can even jump into a pilot's chair and fly a plane for the first time like a champ. There's even a drama-stage house that doubles as a hangout for pushers and pimps, where one of the suppliers isn't above kicking an old woman around who's late paying for some smack for her young addicted daughter. There's a zenith level of outrageousness to the proceedings that you can't help but adore, and what's amazing is that Castellari is able to keep the story strands properly aligned and the narrative chugging along with a seamlessness without ever blowing things out of proportion -- he's an exuberant entertainer who knows what to use the camera for and how to get maximum results while throwing to the winds the laws of suspension of disbelief. Even in the junky post-apocalyptic flick 1990: The Bronx Warriors Castellari has been able to lend an organic clarity and high-entertainment value to whatever he turns his attention to, and it's this -- this natural instinct for serving up on the silver screen something out-there but disciplined -- that keeps his films from ever straying from an entertaining path and making us question his ability. There aren't many directors out there like him, and for that we're lesser of fitfully enjoyable jewels like The Heroin Busters.

Proves you don't have to suffer through self-indulgent snore-fests like "8 1/2" to enjoy an Italian film.

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originally posted: 12/22/06 04:42:46
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  N/A (NR)
  DVD: 25-Apr-2006



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