Enzo Castellari’s The Heroin Busters (1977)

It’s Monday folks and as usual I’m diggin’ in The Grab Bag once again. Seeing as Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds release is getting closer, I thought I’d sit down and take a look at the film Castellari put out directly before his original film Inglorious Bastards. If it was made today, people would say Enzo was ripping off Quentin, but all he did was merely make a film that fans of genre film like me, and you, and Quentin Tarantino can get our Politzia fix from. And that’s the strongest thing we should touch too, because you learn quite well that you don’t want to cross…

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The Heroin Busters [Italian: Vie della droga, La] (1977) starring Fabio Testi, David Hemmings, Wolfangle Soldati, Sherry Buchanan, Directed by Enzo Castellari.

hb6The drug trade has spread all over the world, and Mike Hamilton of INTERPOL is determined to put a stop to it.  He’s working with an undercover cop played by Fabio Testi whose name we never learn. The back of his jacket is emblazoned with the name ‘Matt’, but he is never called by that name, and in the credits to the film he is listed as playing Fabio. So, Testi himself has gone into deep cover in the drug trade, and he gets pulled into Hamilton’s investigation when zealous customs officials bust Fabio but let a big time dealer through. When the cops do manage to get on the right target, the drug runner outsmarts them and gets away with the goods.

hb3After setting all of this kick ass action premise up, Castellari took a moment to include a little after school special into the film. We see some young teens try to buy some junk from Wolfgangle Soldati’s character Gilo. Right in front of the impressionable duo, Gilo gets jumped and savagely beaten.  That’s taking Scared Straight to the extreme! Well, of course, Gilo gets carted off to jail and ends up in a cell with our buddy Testi. It seems Testi is so serious about his cover that he’s just going to stay in jail. So they make friends, and what do friends do but bust out of jail together. Fabio is looking to use Gilo as another way to the inside of the drug racket.

It turns out that Gilo’s girlfriend is some kind of dancer, and her choreographer, Mossimo,  is the big middleman in the operation. Testi strikes a deal with them. This is all going on while we also take in scenes of a junkie being “taken care of” by her mother, pot pushers depressed that “no one is into grass anymore”, and shots of lesbian sex which may or may not have been a junkie’s drug addled fantasy. Each of these separate story lines weave their way though the others. Some of them end up being quite short, and in the case of Gilo, much shorter than I would have liked. At a bit over the hour mark, Gilo in his desperation agrees to go on an armed robbery, and he gets killed for his trouble.

hb5Gilo’s dancer girlfriend gets put down by a hot shot before she can go to the cops. Mossimo and his boys watch over her as she overdoses. Upon seeing the what is going on, Leonardo Scavino’s hashish dealer admonishes the killers and declaims, “You must believe me because I am one of them. We are all sons of bitches.” The gang, naturally doesn’t really care, and it’s back to business as usual. Soon Testi is at the point where he is going to get found out, and makes his move. He puts a kink in their operation, but now, with his identity revealed, he becomes a hunted man. With both the police and the cops on his tale, Fabio races against time to stop the head of the drug ring from escaping, even if it means chasing on foot, on a motorcycle, or with a plane.

hb2The Heroin Busters was the perfect mix of actors, action, and acumen. Testi, the  legend, turns in another credible role as a badass, and coupled with the rumpled suit charisma of David Hemmings, the two make a pretty good team. The first third of the film is slow, but once Gilo’s story gets going things pick up a bit. Then when the poor boy meets his fate, you are basically at the start of the last third of the film, the chase. I have rarely been more entertained by this lengthy an action sequence, but Castellari managed to keep you guessing with some interesting scenarios. All of the action is propelled by the styling of Goblin who turned out one of their better non-horror scores I have heard from them. This is one that sticks in the mind, and I’ll be wanting the main theme on my iPod as soon as I can find it.

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Castellari and cinematographer Giovalli Bergamini would work together four more times after this film, including on Inglorious Bastards. One thing The Heroin Busters shares with IB are the well staged action set pieces, and while the WWII film would be able to do much bigger explosions than Busters, all the action is intense and believable. The real problem is contained right there. While the action seems very real world, the story has plot holes that just can’t be explained. Fabio should have been a dead man long ago. The Smack dealers would not let him get by on his charms alone.

This is a minor gripe though. Much like other Italian fare that I love, if you deliver style, some substance, and entertainment, then you’re OK in my book. Enzo is far more than OK. A director who never fails to disappoint, and who always leaves you excited for the next one of his films. Castellari is a master at making the audience hang in there for what might happen next, and sometimes, what happens is a movie like The Heroin Busters.