An American mafia boss (Cyril Cusack) sends chalk and cheese hit-men Dave Catania (Henry Silva) and Frank Webster (Woody Strode) to Milan, Italy on a manhunt for small-time pimp, Luca Canali (Mario Adorf). No-one knows why the New York mob want the gregarious and unassuming Luca dead, but local godfather Don Vito Tressoldi (Adolfo Celi) complies by sending slinky Eva Lalli (Luciana Paluzzi) to show Dave and Frank around town. Soon Luca is on the run, betrayed by his friends and relentlessly pursued by both foreign killers and the Milanese mob. Enraged when they endanger his wife (Sylva Koscina) and daughter, Luca is determined to stay alive long enough to uncover the truth.
Like many Italian B-movie directors, Fernando Di Leo had been around awhile, dabbling in any genre in fashion until he found his metier with a spate of fast-paced, hard-edged crime thrillers. Manhunt ranks as his strongest effort, energetic and brutal with a number of gripping set-pieces, including an exhausting car chase wherein Luca relentlessly pursues an assassin, first on foot, then clinging onto the windshield of a speeding van. Tautly scripted and well acted by a cast that includes a reunion of Thunderball (1965) co-stars Adolfo Celi and Luciana Paluzzi, the film compels from start to finish in spite of the jarringly hypocritical undercurrents running through the story.
Di Leo is sometimes described as the Italian Jean-Pierre Melville, but his films are by comparison more crass and one-note in their thematic preoccupations and deal in broad caricatures rather than archetypes. In Di Leo’s eyes, lovable local rogues like Luca are more admirable than those cold, calculating, corporate criminals from overseas and can be forgiven their transgressions (at one point Luca tells a female friend he wishes he could sell her on the street since “with your thighs, I’d make a fortune!”) since they uphold the status quo. In an early scene, a bartender looks aghast as two underage girls ply their trade in the oldest profession. “They’re underage whores”, Eva corrects him and adds they earn the huge sums of money that keep the local economy afloat. Oh, so that’s alright then. Di Leo dresses the story up with messages about the corrupting influence of America. Mouthy playboy Dave and the more taciturn and professional Frank behave like tourists, hitting all the hot nightspots, starting trouble with the “nice” local thugs and flashing their cash at kooky hippie chick Trini (Francesca Romana Coluzzi) whom they mistake for a whore. Gorgeous giallo staple Femi Benussi (baring her all once again in the cause of Italian exploitation, god bless her) adds another layer of reactionary philosophising when she snarls the hippies’ idea of free love is far more amoral than sex-trafficking.
Thankfully, Mario Adorf papers over the cracks with an affable performance. With his paunch, greasy ’tache and eye-scorching wide ties, he is far from a conventional hero but emotes with an intensity that overcomes the rather sentimentalised depiction of a small-time pimp. Meanwhile, Henry Silva and Woody Strode are compellingly menacing and allegedly the inspiration for the hit-men John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson played in Pulp Fiction (1994). The women are largely superfluous and, as in a lot of Italian crime pictures, it is hard to shake the feeling the filmmaker enjoys brutalizing glamorous actresses a little too much. Di Leo redeems himself with some wry asides - such as the Mafioso who remarks of one assassin: “His mom begged me to give him work” - and the gripping junkyard finale which features a spectacular death by crane. Armando Trovaioli supplies the fabulously funky score.