Tough cop Nico Palmieri (Fabio Testi) faces an uphill struggle investigating an extortion racket inflicted upon a sleepy Italian village, where the inhabitants are too terrified to speak out against a mob of violent criminals. When Palmieri finally convinces mild-mannered restaurateur Luigi Giulti (Renzo Palmer) to testify, the mobsters brutally rape his young daughter (Marcella Michelangeli). Then when Olympic skeet-shooting champion Gianni Rossetti (Orso Maria Guerrini) comes to the policeman’s aid during a mob ambush, the thugs invade his home, rape his wife (Anna Zinneman) then burn her alive. Suspecting the crooks have a man on the inside, Palmieri’s unorthodox solution is to recruit wily old rogue Pepe (Vincent Gardenia) who commits a string of non-violent bank robberies alongside his young nephew, in a bid to ferret out the rival gang lord. Unfortunately the scheme backfires resulting in a lynching and Palmieri’s dismissal from the police force. With nothing left to lose, Palmieri forms a vigilante force including the vengeful Luigi, Gianni and Pepe, alongside a similar grudge-bearing mafia don Pierro Mazzarelli (Glauco Onorato) and a mob hitman, for a final bloody showdown with the mobsters.
1976 was a vintage year for Italian action auteur Enzo G. Castellari. Alongside his spaghetti western masterpiece Keoma, the costume romp The Loves and Times of Scaramouche and the spoof western Cry Onion!, Castellari delivered this nihilistic crime thriller that many rate as a political commentary on the corruption and terrorism plaguing Italy during the Seventies. Although Castellari certainly delivers the dynamic action, extraordinary stunts and ingenious camerawork for which he is rightly famed (notably an inside view of a car rolling downhill as Palmieri tumbles amidst flying shards of glass), as a political statement The Big Racket is rather muddled.
Structure-wise, the plot runs much the same as Street Law (1974): a series of grim atrocities escalating ever higher until a brutal warehouse finale. Whilst breaking taboos regarding the depiction of sex and violence (e.g. a pair of sickening sexual assaults often truncated in most UK prints), Castellari actually upholds a conservative viewpoint. The wisecracking hoodlums embody every middle-aged bourgeoisie’s idea of youth gone awry, while the brains behind the gang is unmasked as a sharp-dressed, smooth-talking Englishman named Rudy (Joshua Sinclair). The film’s anti-crime and corruption message treads perilously close to an anti-liberal subtext as the crooks hide their homicidal impulses behind political indignation, there are the usual arguments about the law protecting criminals rather than citizens while the chief instigators of crime in this small Italian town are largely foreigners. By contrast, Palmieri turns a blind eye to Pepe and his nephew who regularly rob tourists at gunpoint. Thus the film implies established local criminals are decent sorts compared to these young thugs from overseas. Tourists are fair game, but the foreign hoodlums pick on local businessmen, thus jeopardising the Italian economy.
Palmieri’s righteous indignation combines with Castellari’s love of action and fails to note the irony in combating organised crime by turning mild-mannered citizens into homicidal maniacs. Nevertheless The Big Racket does not make a convincing argument for taking a proactive stance against crime, given none of the principals walk away from the climactic carnage and implies the lone survivor has been driven completely insane. However, charismatic matinee idol Fabio Testi makes a compelling hero and Castellari fans will relish every blood squib and slow-motion stunt staged amidst a typically pulsating Guido and Maurizio De Angelis score.