Family man by day, stone-cold killer by night, Tony Arzenta (Alain Delon) is the most prized hit-man in the mob, fiercely loyal and lethal. But now Tony wants to leave the mafia and settle down to a quiet life with his wife and son. Although his boss, Nick (Richard Conte) is amenable to the idea, the other members of the crime syndicate - Grunwald (Anton Diffring), Carré (Roger Hanin), and Cuttita (Lino Troisi) - decide Tony knows too much and must be killed. The result is Tony’s wife and son are blown up in a car bomb meant for him. This prompts our anguished antihero to embark on a violent revenge spree.
Early into his career Alain Delon essayed an array of ice-cool assassins or suave psychopaths, but Tony Arzenta (also known as Big Guns or, more aptly given its fatalistic tone, No Way Out) was something of a transitional film for the legendary French star. This Italian-French co-production initiated the avenging hero phase of Delon’s career, one he ploughed throughout the ensuing decade. In Comme le boomerang (1976) Delon played a father fighting to keep his son from being jailed for a crime he did not commit, in Parole de Flic (1985) he is a cop out to avenge his daughter’s death, and most intriguingly Death of a Corrupt Man (1977) has him fighting to save all of France from encroaching political corruption. These roles paved the way for the more reactionary, establishment figure Delon came to embody in his later years.
As a mafia thriller, Tony Arzenta was part-inspired by The Godfather (1972), as indeed were a rash of Italian gangster films in the early Seventies that traded the sharp sociopolitical satire of early genre maestro Francesco Rosi for a more crowd-pleasing approach. Nevertheless, Italian filmmakers remained somewhat suspicious of what they perceived as Hollywood’s glorification of gangsters. Adopting a more fatalistic outlook, they chose to focus on the footsoldiers in the mafia, on antiheroes like Tony Arzenta who were mere cogs in a wheel of callous criminality. On close inspection however, Tony is far more romanticised than Michael Corleone. Even the local priest thinks he is a stand-up guy. It is equally notable the more villainous gangsters are French and German, with the lone Sicilian in the bunch expressing his outrage at the senseless slaughter of Tony’s family. Delon gives a good performance that goes against the grain of your typical avenging antihero. When Tony’s wife and son are killed, he does not explode but quietly crumbles. Thereafter he seems a haunted shell of a man, more or less dead inside.
Veteran action hand Duccio Tessari directs in surprisingly clinical fashion. At times his remote style adds intriguing nuance, as though he were scrutinising a particularly arcane social milieu instead of Machiavellian mobsters, but in most instances he fails to involve viewers in the drama. Between Tony’s revenge killings, the film’s pace is awkward and slow in spite of the often stylish visuals woven by cinematographer Silvano Ippoliti. Too many filler scenes exist solely to illustrate what rotten swine the mobsters are before Tony eliminates them. Given one of their number is revealed as a family man, one might expect there would be some kind of ironic confrontation, but no. There is an interesting plot wrinkle when an Interpol agent reveals they have been protecting Tony so he can continue killing all the untouchable criminals on their most wanted list, but it goes undeveloped. This is foremost an action movie. Its car chases, punch ups and shootouts are satisfyingly visceral, but action fans will likely find the payoff unsatisfying while those drawn to its darker undercurrents will note how often Tessari loses sight of the film’s themes amidst the mayhem.
The film assembles an interesting cast including actor-director Roger Hanin, who segued from his popular role as spy hero The Gorilla into making his directorial debut the same year as this with the interesting, socially-conscious thriller Le Protecteur (1973). Eurohorror fans will spot Rosalba Neri, wasted in a nothing role as a mobster’s wife, a shaggy-haired Marc Porel as Tony’s sidekick who gets crushed to death in an auto yard (it wouldn’t be an Italian crime thriller unless someone got crushed in an auto yard) and flame-haired siren Erika Blanc in a curious sojourn in Copenhagen that implies Danes don’t give a damn when hookers are beaten up in broad daylight. The film’s fatalism and misogyny are boringly predictable while the ending reads less as bitter irony than shallow justification of the status quo. Nevertheless, Tony Arzenta proved an international hit prompting Delon and Tessari to reteam for their take on possibly the ultimate avenging hero: Zorro (1975).