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It took a while for modern cult film fans to be able to accurately assess the worth of director Umberto Lenzi in the U.S.  During the VHS era, he was primarily known in this country for blunt-force shocks of Eaten Alive and Cannibal Ferox. However, as VHS gave way to DVD and later blu-ray, more of his work became available and he was revealed to be a craftsman skilled in a variety of genre styles. For instance, he excelled at gialli, making a string of fan-beloved entries with Carroll Baker as well as the surrealistic classic Spasmo

It was also revealed that Lenzi excelled at the poliziotteschi, the ultra-tough brand of Italian cops-and-crooks film inspired by the likes of The French Connection and the Dirty Harry series. The tough, dynamic style of filmmaking required by these films suited Lenzi well and he made several during the genre’s ’70s heyday, including iconic titles like Almost Human and The Cynic, The Rat And The Fist. The Tough Ones was produced in the middle of this flurry of activity – 1976 to be precise – and it rates as both one of the genre’s classics and one of Lenzi’s best films.

Maurizio Merli, arguably the biggest star of the poliziotteschi, toplines as Inspector Tanzi. He finds himself deeply frustrated by the rising tide of crime in Rome and a belief that the law favors the crooks over the cops.  He bucks the trend, much to the dismay of his juvenile psychiatrist girlfriend Anna (Maria Rosaria Omaggio) and the stern police chief (Arthur Kennedy). As Tanzi deals with an array of robbers, rapists and pushers, he tries to track down an elusive crime boss. Along the way, he finds a worthy adversary in Vincenzo (Tomas Milian), a hunchbacked lout who uses a blue collar cover to disguise his criminal activities – and the two lock horns in a way that leaves Rome riddled with bullets, corpses and crashed cars galore.

The resulting film is a prototypical example of the poliziotteschi. Imagine an American crime film from the ’70s that has been given a shot of adrenalin and you’ll know what to expect: hard-nosed messages about justice and the legal system married to a plot that exploits the sleaze of the criminal milieu and piles on all the action the filmmakers can summon up.  The script was concocted by Lenzi with veteran Italian scribe Dardano Sacchetti: reportedly, it was written quickly to replace a existing script that Lenzi didn’t like.  It takes an on episodic style but never loses pace because the vignettes between the main plot are used to raise the levels of fisticuffs, shootouts and car chases.

Lenzi gives the proceedings an appropriately vigorous and taut style of direction that matches his material’s sense of forward drive. He keeps the dialogue scenes short and tighly paced. Better yet, he mixes sleek camera work and punchy editing with a verite sensibility in how he uses locations, making the street locations a character and giving you a sense of the unease between its sleek surfaces and the criminal elements they contain.  Best of all, he has a two-fisted approach to action: highlights include a suspenseful standoff during a bank robbery that is capped with bullet-riddled action and a hair-raising car chase through busy streets that incorporates some blazing machine-gun fire.  If the latter seems to have a visceral reality, that’s because it was shot in real traffic without permits (as was all the car action here).

That said, the true core of The Tough Ones is the battle of wills between its two main characters. Merli became a tough-guy superstar in Italy thanks to the profile he cuts here and in his other cop films: driven, intense in a tightly-coiled manner and a man’s man who does his own stunts and fighting. When he brawls his way through a youth hangout to beat down some rapists, complete with a barrage of his trademark open-handed slaps, you believe it (highlight: as he beats down the leader, he snarls the legendary line “Crap like you oughta be put in a home and castrated!”).

To his credit, Milian matches Merli step for step by coming at his role from a different angle. Milian had Actor’s Studio training to draw from so he takes things in a more Method-style direction, giving Vincenzo an array of emotional textures – sarcastic to psychotic to pitiful to enraged – and bounces back and forth between them like a pinball, creating a credibly volatile and unpredictable baddie. He also invested deeply in the character’s twisted physicality to give the role an unexpected element of pathos. It surprisingly made Vincenzo a underdog appeal to Italian audiences. Whatever you feel about him, you won’t be able to look away.

Elsewhere, Lenzi rounds the cast out with reliable Italian character actors like Giampiero Albertini as Tanzi’s more even-tempered partner and Ivan Rassimov as a slick, cruel drug dealer.  Lenzi’s crew is just as distinguished: cinematographer Federico Zanni makes the film look like a million bucks (his car-mount shots are stunning), editor Daniele Alabiso gives the film its unflagging pace and, best of all, composer Franco Micalizzi gives the film a pounding, crime-jazz score with punchy horn charts and some cool analog-synth basslines.

In short, The Tough Ones is a testament to Lenzi’s cinematic skills and a display of his mastery of the poliziotteschi genre. If you aren’t familiar with the genre, this is a perfect starting point.