As it has been stated at Schlockmania before, it’s amazing how perceptions of foreign genre directors change as more of their filmography becomes available on home video. For example, director Umberto Lenzi’s name was exclusively associated with gross-out shockers like Cannibal Ferox and Eaten Alive for a long time in the U.S. In recent years, his reputation has improved because the many crime/action and gialli films he did in the 1970’s have become more widely available through DVD and blu-ray. These films reveal him to be an above-average craftsman with a real feel for these genres.

A good example of his poliziotteschi work is Syndicate Sadists. This film focuses on a clever, motorcycle-riding rebel named Rambo (Tomas Milian). By the way, that name isn’t a coincidence – Milian read the novel First Blood and told the filmmakers he wanted to play such a character. Milian’s Rambo comes home to visit his brother, an ambitious member of a local private security force. When that brother is killed during an investigation, Rambo knows one of the two local crime syndicates was responsible and hatches a Yojimbo-style scheme to bring them to justice.

The end result never hits the manic heights of other examples in the genre but it shapes up as a very watchable programmer thanks to solid craftsmanship. Vincenzo Mannino’s script keeps a close eye on its plot line, seeding it with a few nice action setpieces and working in some novel twists and surprising character bits to keep things interesting.

Milian, always a major Euro-cult favorite, has fun playing a hero instead of the villain roles he often played in poliziotteschi.  He delivers everything his fans would expect: he’s tough and charismatic, handling everything in a sly, relaxed style that instantly wins the viewer over.  The result plays like a less sarcastic prototype for his later work as a rebel cop in his Nico Giraldi films.

Joseph Cotten is also quite good as an unexpectedly sympathetic Mafia don – he quietly milks the role for all the pathos it offers without lapsing into overacting.  Elsewhere, Italo-cult fans will enjoy seeing familiar faces like Adolfo Lastretti and Luciano Pigozzi popping in up as crooks.

Finally – and very importantly – Umberto Lenzi holds it all together with some very confident direction. His action sequences are vigorous, he gets colorful performances from the cast without letting them go too far over the top and you could set your watch by the film’s steady pacing.  He also gets the best out of his collaborators: Federico Zanni’s scope cinematography is full of bold, comic book-style compositions and Franco Micalizzi delivers a flavorful crime-funk score, including a fun theme tune where the horn section duels with analog synths.

In short, Lenzi’s confident touch makes Syndicate Sadists perfect stuff for fans of a tough guy cinema.  It’s a good entry point into this area of his diverse filmography, which also includes fan favorites like Almost Human and The Cynic, The Rat & The Fist.

Blu-Ray Notes:  There’s a nice region-free disc of this title out from 88 Films in the U.K.  Not only does it boast an impressive transfer but it also includes a Lenzi interview and fun retrospective featurette with Eurocrime! documentarian Mike Malloy.