Inside a plush New York high-rise office, a bald-headed bigwig sips at a J&B on ice, while nearby a couple of equally cold-countenanced mafia hit men are chilling between killings. More than a social call, the dour duo tune in as their high-rise higher-up gives them the lowdown on a dirty-rotten double-crosser from Milan named Luca Canali. It's believed Canali swindled the mafia on a major drug deal, so the hitmen are sent to Milan to kill Canali in gruesome grand fashion, sending a message that, in case anyone forgot, the New York mafia is not to be trifled with.
As it turns out, Luca Canali is really just a small-time pimp, his lack of wealth and lowly status compensated for with a heart of gold. Shortly after visiting with his little daughter and estranged wife, Luca is plucked off the street by a couple of mustachioed mafioso who are full of tough talk and taunts. Little do they realize however, Luca knows how to use his fists in addition to his head, literally, as the prince of pimps makes quick work of his adversaries (and a telephone) with his patented cranium-shattering head-butt.
A slightly bruised and deeply bewildered Luca soon discovers that in addition to the local mafia, a couple of mysterious men from New York are after him - but for what, he has not a clue. With bad guys and bullets chasing him down every street in Milan, clues begin to fall into place, and Luca discovers that he has been set up to take the fall for a mafia drug deal gone shady. No mere pushover pimp, Luca Canali proves to be much more than just the lowlife peddler-in-poon everyone thought by fighting back, hard, and with a bloody head-butting vengeance.
Made in 1972, and known under multiple titles including La Mala Ordina, Hit Men, Manhunt in the City, and most bafflingly, Black King Pin, the film remains a lean, high-powered action picture brimming with energy and electrifying entertainment. Directed by Fernando Di Leo with plenty of gritty gusto, the film marks the second in the director's "Milieu Trilogy" that began with the excellent Milan Calibre 9 (Milano Calibro 9) and ended on an audacious note with The Boss (Il Boss). Of the three, however, The Italian Connection is simply superb and the very best in the trilogy.
As per usual, Di Leo is credited with having written the bulk of the screenplay for The Italian Connection, which is an exceptional, airtight exercise in running a protagonist through a nerve-splintering gauntlet. A common screenwriting analogy for this equally conventional approach to heightening conflict, is to put your protagonist in a tree and then hurl rocks at the poor sod - which in the case of The Italian Connection is more like Di Leo lobbing grenades at Luca Canali and trying to blow the analogous tree to tiny proverbial pieces. In all, the director's no-holds-barred story and aggressive filmmaking techniques add up to an exciting film that escalates relentlessly towards its memorably ferocious finale.
To be certain, one of the film's finest moments is a beautifully executed, seven minute pressure cooker chase sequence wherein Luca Canali wildly pursues one of the mafia's goons. The energy and rage actor Mario Adorf, who plays Canali, exudes during this pursuit is truly extraordinary and powerful, packing a real visceral wallop. The chase itself is a crackling, car-mangling, windshield-shattering set piece replete with frenetic camerawork, potent editing, and a score by Armando Trovajoli that intensifies the mounting action. The entire sequence is a highlight of not only this film, but Italian genre cinema in general, and is an unforgettable example of bravura filmmaking at its breath-stealing best.
The Italian Connection features genre faves Henry Silva and Woody Strode as the two nefarious New York hit men, but as Luca Canali, this is undoubtedly Mario Adorf's movie. With a lengthy career, that still continues to this day, Adorf was often featured in smaller roles. However, in The Italian Connection, given the rare opportunity to play the lead role, he seizes fortune by the throat and never lets go, giving an accomplished, winning performance, full of honest intensity. This extremely likeable character is the heart of the film, and it's thrilling to see a neglected actor transform the part into the role of a lifetime.
I was fortunate to see The Italian Connection in a theater with a packed crowd, which by film's end, was all abuzz. Although the movie loses some of its impact and power when viewed on a television screen, the film stands up extremely well today. Not currently available on DVD in the U.S., Raro Video has an excellent PAL O Region two DVD collector's edition spawned by the film's recent revival at the 2004 Venice Film Festival - which was also aided by the support of Fernando Di Leo devotee Quentin Tarantino.
Featuring an uncut version of the film, with its original title, La Mala Ordina, the DVD's digital transfer is exceptional, restoring the crisp, saturated colors and Franco Villa's skillfully understated cinematography. In addition to a fine presentation of the film - which for English speaking viewers can be viewed with either its original Italian soundtrack and English subtitles, or in an English dubbed version - the Raro DVD's extras include a documentary about the film (which is in Italian and quite frustratingly does not include any subtitles), a photo gallery, a Fernando Di Leo filmography, and liner notes about the movie.
While it's not a flawless film, The Italian Connection does completely deserve its reputation as one of the finest Italian crime films of the seventies. It's an undoubtedly great piece of pulp cinema I highly regard, enjoy, and wholeheartedly recommend.