Mild-mannered engineer Carlo Antonelli (Franco Nero) stumbles into the middle of a bank robbery where three violent criminals shoot up the place and take him hostage. A white-knuckle car chase ensues, after which Carlo is left badly beaten and traumatised. Humiliated by the indifferent cops, who snidely remark he “got off easy”, Carlo resolves avenge himself, although his girlfriend Barbara (future Bond girl and Mrs. Ringo Starr, Barbara Bach) is dead against him turning vigilante. Through painstaking detective work Carlo lures the perpetrators and their criminal bosses into a trap, but someone in the police department tips them off. Going back to square one, Carlo blackmails small-time hoodlum Tommy (Giancarlo Prete) into leading him deeper into the underworld, but bringing the criminals to justice proves more difficult than he could have ever imagined.
Released around the same time as Death Wish (1974), Street Law, somewhat rarely for an Italian exploitation thriller, was not inspired by the Hollywood hit but shares the ideas that fuelled it. In the Seventies, in the wake of the international oil crisis, the collapse of the Italian economy sparked a rise in violent crime. Whether victimised by petty thugs or targeted by international terrorists, the citizens of Rome felt their city was not safe anymore, a situation compounded by political corruption and bureaucratic incompetence. These events reached their apotheosis with the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II after which politicians seemingly realised la dolce vita had turned very sour indeed and finally sought a positive change.
Action auteur Enzo G. Castellari deftly illustrates the public perception of this grim state of affairs circa 1974 with a masterful montage of break-ins, muggings and murders set to a funky prog rock score by Guido and Maurizio De Angelis. Just don’t pay too close attention to those garbled English lyrics: “Traffic is like sweat on a dinosaur…” Come again? For Carlo, whose father died protesting the fascist movement decades ago, the situation is only the latest manifestation of a cycle of terror plaguing the Italian people. He firmly believes ordinary citizens should rebel against the status quo: “It’s a question of self-respect. The way to conquer fear is to do what you are afraid of.” However, Barbara articulates the anxiety of the common man: “Better to live like a coward than get killed.”
Striking a fair balance between liberal and right wing points of view, this bleak and bitter film spreads the blame evenly, an approach underlined by the presentation of its hero not as a two-fisted vigilante in the Charles Bronson mould, but a flawed, all too vulnerable man prone to many mistakes. Carlo’s attempts at detective work often end in humiliation and he frequently finds himself at the mercy of the resourceful and brutal criminals. While disheartening at times, this more humanistic presentation highlights rare moments of ingenuity, as when Carlo fakes his own kidnapping and plants fake tape recordings implying the cops were colluding with the criminals, thus spurring the police into action. After an exciting start, the plot meanders in parts, growing increasingly convoluted while some of the macho male bonding is melodramatic to excess. The film works at its best when it sticks to the essentials. Castellari could stage an exciting action sequence as brilliantly as Sam Peckinpah. His razor sharp editing and artful use of slow-motion complements the helter-skelter of shootouts and car chases executed by the daredevil stunt team, culminating in an incredibly tense showdown with Carlo and Tommy caught in the crossfire between three vicious killers. Leading man Franco Nero ably conveys layers of rage and sorrow with those piercing blue eyes.
Interestingly, William Lustig credited this film with inspiring his cult thriller, Vigilante (1983), making it ironic that Street Law was released on American video as Vigilante II!