Street Law (1974): As Rome Burned, Nero Played Violence

Because of the 1973 Oil crisis during which the oil producing members of OPEC declared an embargo against the United States and its ally nations, economic troubles found their way to the shores of Italy. This lead to a major bump in the crime rate and many of the citizenry believing that crime was running unchecked. Tapping into this fear, Enzo Castellari brought to the public his 1974 film Il cittandino si ribella, known in the U.S. under the titles Vigilante II or Street Law. The film follows one man’s fight against the underworld, but it also serves as an examination of the political climate of Italy, a deconstruction of the law abiding citizen, and most importantly a kick ass action film from the director of classics like Inglorious Bastards Keoma,  and The Heroin Busters.

In a departure from his tough guy roles, Franco Nero plays Carlo Antonelli, the mild mannered head of an engineering firm. Carlo is making a deposit at a bank when three gunman burst in for a daring daylight robbery, and he is beaten and taken away as their hostage. Finally he is abandoned by the robbers in a shipping yard where the police find him barely clinging to consciousness. As Carlo recovers, he finds the police unable or unwilling to track down the culprits, and with no other choice, he takes the investigation into his own hands. This quickly leads to Carlo being the recipient to another beating. Taking a more academic tact, he scours back issues of the newspaper until he unravels a connection to the gang of thugs. Carlo blackmails the connection, Tommy (Giancarlo Prete), into helping him, but eventually the two become partners as they hatch an idea to force the underworld and the police into a war with the bank robbers stuck in the middle.

Throughout Street Law there are several occasions where you just want to reach into the screen, smack Franco Nero’s character, and ask him why he’s trying to get himself killed. Like  a cross between Peter Finch in Network when he was “mad as hell and he’s not going to take it anymore” and a precursor to Michael Douglas' character in Falling Down, Carlo is filled with rage, but he has no idea what to do with it. At first he thinks that he can go about it like the cops would, asking questions and following suspects, but he only gains any ground when he begins to think like a criminal, blackmailing Tommy into helping him against the underworld. The relationship between the two characters, Carlo, the law abiding citizen who is losing his moral perspective in the pursuit of revenge, and Tommy, the thief with his own personal code and a desire to leave his life of crime, are at the heart of the film. The script by screenwriter Arduino Maiuri and scenarist Masimo De Rita, who also wrote the early Charles Bronson films Violent City and Chino, really pulls together the personal relationship between the leads, the pulse pounding action of Castellari, and a reflection of many Italians in the early 1970’s into a film that both entertains and speaks to the audience.

Franco Nero’s character Carlo is the son of a man who spoke up against the fascists when they came into power, and one of his arguments when his girlfriend, the second billed Barbara Carrera who only appears briefly in the film, tries to talk some sense into him is that it is his duty to stand up against the injustice. This desire for the little guy who reaches his breaking point to seek revenge was also one of the main themes of another 1974 film, Death Wish, and it would be easy to compare the two films. Even though something was floating though the global zeitgeist to inspire two films with such similar themes, they share little in common due to the vast differences between the street gangs of New York and the institutionalized corruption and criminality of Italian society. Plus, the first Death Wish is a fairly slow moving film, but I doubt there are many Castellari productions that the same could be said about. From the opening frame and thanks to a driving score by the De Angeles Brothers, Street Law kicks off and it doesn’t let go until the final frame.

I could easily go on about how great the Nero, Castellari, and the De Angeles Brothers are, but I’ve talked about all four of these men exhaustively in the past. So I’ll just sum it up by saying that they all bring their top game to Street Law. If you are a fan of Euro-crime films or are just getting interested in the genre, then this is a great place to start. While you’ll find a great many car chases, fight fights, and shoot outs, there is a deeper level that the movie works on that makes it one of the best examples of the genre that I have seen. As an aside to any John Saxon fans out there, look out for a cameo from the Saxon as a dockworker. Plus, you don’t want to miss Nero’s inspirational speech at the end of the film that finishes with the promise of, “a place for snacks”. That in and of itself makes me want to fight against injustice, and I think I’ll do it the best way I know how. By letting people know they should see Street Law, I’m just trying to make the world a better place for us all to watch Italian cinema.

Bugg Rating

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