When action fare started to dry up at the U.S. multiplexes during the mid-1990’s, cult movie fans who loved the genre began looking to other countries and past eras for new bullet-infused thrills. At first, it was Hong Kong action of the John Woo variety that revved up cult fan’s engines. However, another type of action began to be explored around this time on a more underground level: the Italian crime flick, also known as the Poliziotteschi. This subgenre took its cues from tough American films like Dirty Harry, The French Connection and Death Wish and pumped them up with a melodramatic, go-for-broke intensity that is distinctly Italian.
Live Like A Cop, Die Like A Man is a popular entry in the genre with Poliziotteschi fans because it lives up to the genre’s promise of hard-hitting thrills. It’s aesthetic is laid out neatly in an opening sequence where a pair of motorcycle thugs snatch a women’s purse and drag her to her death (said bag is chained to her wrist). She smacks head-first into a curb and is given a few kicks to the face for good measure. Tough yet oddly boyish cops Fred (Marc Porel) and Tony (Ray Lovelock) follow this duo on a pair of bikes, leading to an orgiastic chase that mixes wild stunts with slapstick elements. When they catch the crooks, Fred and Tony make sure they’re dead before the beat cops arrive.
This brutal and absurd yet operatic sequence sets the tone for the rest of the film. The main thrust of the plot involves Fred and Tony trying to get to a vicious crime boss Bibi (Renato Salvatori) after his men shoot down one of their fellow officers. They work their way towards forcing him out of the woodwork by attacking his men and his operations. They also deal with one-off crime situations like rousting a group of murderous hostage-takers. The episodic plot also makes room for humor, like their dealings with their depressed boss (Adolfo Celi) and their absurdly sexist flirtations with the boss’s secretary (Silvia Dionisio).
By the time Live Like A Cop, Die Like A Man hit movie screens in Italy, the style, content and requisite story beats of the Poliziotteschi genre had all coalesced into a reliable formula. However, this film is unique in the genre because it subscribes to some elements while rejecting or poking fun at others. There’s plenty of action, most of it brutal, but the usual elements of heart-tugging drama or tragedy are pretty much thrown out.
The unusual touch here is the humor: the child-like slapstick antics of Fred and Tony in non-action scenes often play like a Neapolitan-flavored version of Freebie And The Bean. There’s a sense that the cops’ work is all so much tough-guy foolishness (the coda of the film is not unlike the ending of a Bugs Bunny cartoon). It’s also the rare Poliziotteschi film where women are allowed to have the upper hand in their face-offs with the heroes. For example, the heroes are soundly argued down by Dionisio in the scenes where they come on to her and her dialogue has a philosophically mature, intellectual tone that leaves them dumbfounded. Even better is a scene where they try to rough up Bibi’s little sister Lina (played by Dionisio’s sister, Sofia) only for her to end up seducing them both!
That said, the most surprising element of this film might be its choice of director: Ruggero Deodato would soon become known for button-pushing horror fare like Cannibal Holocaust and House At The Edge Of The Park. Fans will be happy to note that he toys with audience expectations as much as he does in his horror work, albeit in a more lighthearted way. He also doesn’t shy away from the necessary roughness of the action sequences: in addition to the aforementioned motorcycle scene, he also turns in strong work during the hostage scenario sequence. It’s a marvel of people getting smacked around, close-ups of sweaty faces and lots of yelling.
Simply put, Live Like A Cop, Die Like A Man works as both a genre entry and a sly sendup of its own genre. If you want a straightforward example of the Poliziotteschi, you should probably start with Street Law or Almost Human – but it you want to see a filmmaker have fun with the genre’s cartoonish excesses while still delivering the goods, this is your film.