Sunday, 13 February 2022

Free Hand For A Tough Cop (Umberto Lenzi 1976) Review

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Who would've believed it, me playing a hero? I would have been a lot happier if you'd left me in jail.” Umberto Lenzi was a skilled journeyman director, but he was perhaps at his happiest when toiling in the criminal underbelly during Italy's tumultuous 'Years of Lead' in the 1970s, with films such as The Tough Ones and The Cynic The Rat and The Fist. Brandishing a keen eye for sudden flashes of violence as well as a darkly dry sense of humour, Lenzi's Free Hand For A Tough Cop acts as a proto-buddy-cop flick, featuring a mismatched pair on opposing sides of the law as they attempt to track down a remorseless criminal in order to save the life of an innocent child...

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What the hell am I doing here watching this shit?” Lenzi opens his film by immersing the audience in a spaghetti western, throwing the viewer off-guard, before we suddenly peel back from the wonders of Monument Valley to the dim light of a prison, where 'Garbage Can' Monnezza (the always watchable Tomas Milian, Syndicate Sadists) picks his teeth amidst a screening for the bored inmates. Little is he aware, though, that rogue cop Inspector Sarti (Claudio Cassinelli, The Suspicious Death of a Minor) has infiltrated the loosely guarded facility in order to kidnap Monnezza. Already in its first few minutes, with a policeman breaking a criminal out of prison, Lenzi's 1976 poliziotteschi is off to a typically unpredictable start.

It's really a national sin to waste all this milk.” Monnezza, a character that Milian would play on a handful of occasions, is a world weary crim possessing a sardonic wit whose penchant for devilish games (poisoned milk switcheroo) and a change of costume is only matched by the imposing nature of his permed hair, dark-rimmed eyes, and overt physicality. Despite a clear description broadcasting on the police radio, Monnezza is successfully spirited away from incarceration because of his ties with Brescianelli (Henry Silva, Chained Heat).

The flying squad has just discovered three bodies in connection with the case of a missing twelve year-old girl – taken from her rich parents and held for a steep ransom. She's suffering from kidney disease and needs medical attention, so the ticking clock just got louder. With the pressure on, there's no time to soft peddle things, so Inspector Sarti – transferred for being too rough in his methods – has taken a different tack: go undercover and use the freedom of the criminal world to catch an outlaw.

What d'ya mean don't start with the questions? I wanna know who you are, where we're going, and what the fuck ya want from me!” Teaming up with former associates of Monnezza's – a gang of train robbers on-the-run with a thirst for revenge on Brescianelli – Sarti finds himself swirling down the drain of felonious activity, unable to stop the random acts of violence plaguing the city, such as a smash 'n' grab duo whose surprise weapon is a brick hidden inside a tissue box. With Sarti's rabble of hoodlums beating their next clue out of every rung on the criminal ladder, getting mixed up in shoot-outs and car chases along the way, they finally get their big chance: Mara (Nicoletta Machiavelli), Brescianelli's girlfriend – but just as they're about to pounce and wrap this whole thing up, complete coincidence gets in their way with a political assassination! With time running out, and seemingly every branch of both the legal and illegal worlds getting in their way, can Sarti keep Monnezza and their ragtag bunch of thieves in-line and save an innocent life?

We don't give a monkey's fart if you haven't finished yet, just get your fat ass outta here!” Written by Dardano Sacchetti (the Gates of Hell trilogy) and Umberto Lenzi, Free Hand For A Tough Cop sidesteps the more obtuse storytelling of their other pairing that year in The Tough Ones, and sets in place a clear order of business as Sarti & Co gradually make their way through the plot, proceeding from one lead to the next with a clear goal always in-mind: save the girl. In lesser hands this could fall into plodding procedure, but the film's clarity of vision injects a sense of propulsion with a sense of humour to go along with its squealing tyres and blazing guns. One of the film's quirky highlights comes with one of Monnezza's schemes, which sees himself and Sarti disguised as painters – who are both on-the-job and on-strike simultaneously (much to the consternation of the staff) – in order to break into a federal jail to interrogate a prisoner. Similarly, and with a more world weary subtlety, the District Attorney blocks the girl's rich parents from doing what they want with their own money, much to their heartbroken astonishment.

There's a sense of the absurd about the unfolding events, with politically-driven wrangling as often as a random act of terrorism to send things crashing off-course. The sense of unease and unpredictability in Italian life during the 'Years of Lead' must have been akin to living in a mad house, with rampant violence (kidnappings, bank robberies, politically-motivated murders) throwing a disheartening light on the inabilities of the police to control the chaos and the questionable dealings of government. It's no wonder that one of the most common themes in the poliziotteschi movement, inspired by Dirty Harry, was the notion of breaking the rules to actually enforce them. The protagonists might be members of secret sections of the police, law-loving attack dogs let off the leash like in Colt .38 Special Squad, or fist-flingin' rogues like any number of Maurizio Merli cop flicks, or downright criminals given a badge and turned loose under extreme circumstances to restore some semblance of order, such as in Live Like A Cop Die Like A Man.

There's a pile of shit running out of your mouth. He's misguided: some of us are born crooks and some of us coppers, it ain't his fault.” Part of the appeal of these Italian genre pictures is immersing oneself in the time and the place to an extent that feels like visiting a different world, and the more you see of it the more you recognise. You find yourself listening for particular voice artists, searching for conspicuously-placed bottles of J&B whisky, and getting a thrill from seeing a flurry of Alfa Romeo Giulias tearing through the streets in pursuit of gun-toting bank robbers.

With other crime films in his career such as Almost Human and Brothers Till We Die, it's clear that Lenzi was quite possibly never more alive and fizzing with energy than when he was orchestrating chaos on the streets of Italy, the same streets that were already bruised and bloody with the real-world violence erupting all over the country during the 1970s. Rattling along at a steady clip, Free Hand For A Tough Cop proves to be a spirited Eurocrime thriller that's well worth the time of fans of this kind of cinema.

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