Following the assassination of an important official in the Italian government undercover cop Mark Patti (Franco Gasparri) is assigned to infiltrate a terrorist cell. Before long Mark's resourcefulness and guile earn him the trust of ringleaders Paul Henkel (John Steiner) and Olga Kube (Marcella Michelangeli). Yet no matter how quickly he relays information about their plans, the police always arrive too late to foil them. Embroiled in a string of bombings, kidnappings and hijackings, Mark uncovers uncomfortable truths about the establishment's attitude to international terrorism.
Intended as a stand-alone film, The .44 Specialist was hastily reworked in post-production into the third installment in director Stelvio Massi's trilogy of 'poliziotteschi' thrillers with handsome Franco Gasparri as compassionate cop Mark. A former male model, Gasparri's promising career came to a tragically premature end when a motorcycle accident confined him to a wheelchair for the last twenty years of his life. The Mark trilogy, which includes Mark il Poliziotto (1975) and Mark Shoots First (1975), draws its protagonist as a cop distinctively different from the macho moustachioed types portrayed by poliziotteschi icons Franco Nero and Maurizio Merli. Something akin to a Serpico (1973) type, he is hip, sensitive and unlike his contemporaries quite comfortable mingling among the hippies, Hari Krishna devotees and dope-and-free love enthusiasts populating mid-Seventies Italy. Which is not to say he is no less committed to justice than Nero or Merli's two-fisted anti-heroes, only more aware that society's problems need something more substantial than an ass-kicking.
Before terror tactics became the provenance of fundamentalist groups, radical left wing terrorism was the global threat in the Seventies. Nowhere more so than in Italy and Germany which is where Mark finds himself going deep undercover with the sweaty and psychotic Paul and Olga. Taking inspiration from the militant Baader-Meinhof gang, then still rampant in Germany, the film portrays its terrorist characters as dangerous and unstable albeit far from criminal masterminds. As portrayed by British actor John Steiner, who excelled at oily villains across a range of genres, and dubbed with a caricatured German accent, Paul comes across as impulsive and unstable. His politics are far from credible. Which on balance over-simplifies Seventies terrorism yet still serves this film's satirical point wherein Mark discovers cops, terrorists and bystanders alike are all pawns in a much bigger, more cynical political game. Good old reliable John Saxon cameos in another of his shadowy pawnbroker roles and points out the terrorists are conveniently bumping off political figures the establishment are happy to see dead.
While fans weaned on the pulse-pounding brutality favoured by Umberto Lenzi are likely to find The .44 Specialist low on action and excessively talky, the more patient will savour its more incisive drama and well-crafted suspense. It culminates in a tense sequence where Paul's band hijack a train full of terrified hostages while Mark plays along, trying his utmost to save innocent lives without giving himself away. Instead of the familiar touchstones: Dirty Harry (1971) and Death Wish (1974), The .44 Specialist lifts ideas from paranoid political thrillers like The Parallax View (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975) (seemingly the direct inspiration for an office massacre that happens midway through). Massi has a loose grip on an occasionally wayward plot but the film contains enough provocative ideas to rank as probably the strongest effort in his notoriously hit-and-miss career. Beloved Seventies Euro sex bomb Malisa Longo (who later became an award-winning poet, painter and journalist) pops up sporting a blonde dye-job and doffs her togs as Mark's love interest in a throwaway subplot that sees them get it on in an apartment filled with creepy staring mannequins. Mark also has something going on with Olga on the side. The implication being, in typically tasteless 1970s Italian fashion: hey, just because she's a terrorist doesn't mean she isn't worth shagging (in all fairness, the British-made Who Dares Wins (1980) implies the same). Funk-tastic theme music by Stelvio Cipriani.