Welcome to The Prime Sublime, a weekly column dedicated to the underseen and underloved films buried beneath page after page of far more popular fare on Amazon’s Prime Video collection. We’re not just cherry-picking obscure titles, though, as these are movies that we find beautiful in their own, often unique ways. You might even say we think they’re sublime…
“Sublime /səˈblīm/: of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe.”
The glory days of Italian genre cinema thrived on a couple of basic ideals: mimic what was popular in Hollywood at the time, only with the volume turned up. When the Americans were producing Westerns, the Italians made Spaghetti Westerns, which were more violent and eschewed the conventions of more traditional fare.
After that, when the New Hollywood era redefined American cinema and unleashed ballsy crime movies like Dirty Harry, The French Connection, and Death Wish, Italy released a wave of poliziotteschi films. The movies revolved around trigger happy detectives and vigilantes who felt like Harry Callahan and Paul Kersey’s dirtier European cousins, and their brand of justice was more brutal and over-the-top.
That said, these movies are so much more than knockoffs of popular American crime and action movies. Many of them are politically-fueled as a result of the civil unrest in Italy throughout the 1970s. Some historians have dismissed the genre as reactionary and right-wing, but that’s an unfair criticism as the movies are more ideologically complex than left or right.
With that history lesson out of the way, let’s talk about Enzo G. Castellari’s Street Law (1974), starring the one and only Franco Nero, as it’s a great little flick.
What’s it about?
Street Law is about one man’s quest for justice, and he isn’t above breaking the rules to get it. After being kidnapped and left the worse for wear by a group of savage bank robbers, Carlo Antonelli (Nero) finds that the Genoa police aren’t willing to go out of their way to find the culprits. Angered by the rising crime rates in the city, Carlo decides to take the law into his own hands, and after blackmailing some scumbag in exchange for shotguns, that’s when the fun really begins.
Carlo makes an interesting point in the movie. During a conversation with one of his friends, he says that not only is it the citizen’s right to rebel when the law isn’t doing their job, it’s their duty. His mugging essentially instilled him with an Old West way of thinking, which is a point that his girlfriend brings up only to be met with a slap across the face.
That’s one thing you should be wary of before entering this movie — the mistreatment of women. This was commonplace in poliziotteschi movies, as the so-called heroes were often shitty human beings in their own right. Some of them wanted to present a nihilistic worldview, but there’s no denying that they also embraced pushing the boundaries of good taste for shock value.
That said, this is essentially an Italian Death Wish redux that’s even more gung-ho than Michael Winner’s iconic yet problematic fave, so if you go into Street Law with a laundry list of concerns, you’ll find plenty.
What makes it sublime?
While Death Wish undoubtedly informed Street Law’s creation (they were released a few months apart), Castellari’s film is way more entertaining. Street Law spends an ample amount of time on Carlo’s character development, but the movie also understands the importance of frequent action sequences. There are two car chases in the first 20 minutes, and the first one lasts for at least seven of those.
In addition to the car chases, there are numerous fist fights and shootouts, culminating in an excellent final showdown. Nero’s character also rides a car hood until the vehicle knocks him off a cliff, causing him to go tumbling down a very jaggy hill. The stunt work must be commended, and Nero deserves credit for performing several of these routines.
The action set pieces are far from groundbreaking or flashy, but Castellari stages them with a veteran’s experience and plenty of energy. More than anything, Street Law is never boring, and this element is the film’s greatest strength.
It’s Nero who steals the show, though. His performance as a downtrodden everyman is fantastic and, dare I say, quite believable. You really get the impression that he’s at his wit’s end having been dragged through the wringer, shunned by the law, and punished by scum.
He’d be quite easy to sympathize with if it weren’t for the fact he’s a woman-beating sociopath. Still, Nero has always excelled at playing action heroes with a sense of realism, and Street Law plays to his strengths.
And in conclusion…
Street Law isn’t the best poliziotteschi movie, but it is still one of the strongest representations of the genre. The film adheres to the conventions of typical ‘70s vigilante fare, but it’s elevated with a terrific central performance from a great tough-guy actor, lots of action-packed excitement, and a director who understands the genre better than most. Give this gem a chance.