Rome, 1975, where la dolce vita has gone very sour indeed. Armed thieves hijack a crowded bus, killing an eighteen year old youth before making their escape. Outraged Inspector Betti (Maurizio Merli) resolves to crack down on such callous criminals. His skull-cracking methods earn him the enmity of his pen-pushing superiors but that doesn’t stop him bashing a succession of killers, robbers and rapists to a bloody pulp. Yet the city seems caught in a vicious cycle. Purse-snatchers batter a woman to death. Another armed gang hold-up a supermarket, killing a hostage during their getaway. Betti’s partner is shot in the back during a bank robbery while the thief machineguns innocent schoolchildren to cover his escape. Upon taking revenge, Betti is kicked off the force but his crime-busting crusade does not end there.
Violent Rome was the film that brought stardom to macho moustachioed Maurizio Merli and typecast the actor as a tough, uncompromising cop. Italian workhorse Marino Girolami - best known for Zombie Holocaust (1980), though he directed over two hundred films in various genres - made this in response to his son Enzo G. Castellari’s trend-setting High Crime (1972), but established the pattern followed by subsequent poliziotteschi pictures. Heavily episodic, the plot goes from one violent atrocity to another while Betti’s outrage boils like a kettle. Early on an an old woman asks: “Why don’t you hang all those criminals?” which sums up the tone. Its central thesis more or less implies Rome would be a lot safer where cops and vigilantes allowed to wipe criminal scum off the streets without those pen-pushing beaurocrats whining about civil rights. Admittedly, this reflected the frustrations of many Italian citizens at the time and the film conveys a sense of powerlessness that makes such reactionary reasoning understandable, if not admirable.
Girolami’s direction lacks the urgency of Umberto Lenzi who handled the sequel then launched a separate series of poliziotteschi thrillers with Merli. To his credit however, Girolami ensures Violent Rome lacks the heavy-handed sentimentality and hypocrisy that mars much of Lenzi’s work. By having Betti trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of crime and retribution, the film conveys a sense of futility, at least acknowledging that simply beating up crooks is no solution to a complex problem. On the other hand, that does not stop the action from growing rather repetitive. In fact the real plot doesn’t kick in until the sixty minute mark. Thrown off the force, Betti is approached by lawyer Sartori (Richard Conte, in his final role) who enlists him as part of a vigilante forced comprised of past victims of crime. Suddenly the film stops aping Magnum Force (1973) and switches to Death Wish (1974). Betti and his vigilantes partol the streets at night, catch crooks in the act then whomp ’em. Inevitably the criminals strike back, invading Sartori’s house and raping his daughter - because it wouldn’t be an Italian crime thriller unless some woman was brutally raped. The vigilantes take revenge, then yet another group of crooks invade a restaurant and so it goes, on and on, although maybe that is the point.
Merli was a limited actor yet he conveys the right mix of rage, compassion and sadness. He monopolizes the screen despite choice roles for Euro-cult favourites Ray Lovelock as the resourceful undercover cop who comes to a tragic end and John Steiner as the almost comically callous crook. The film’s big action set-piece is a rip-roaring car chase that while modelled a little too closely on the celebrated one from The French Connection (1971) proves impressive nevertheless and his deftly handled by Girolami. Oddly events don’t reach a climax so much as fizzle out while the ambiguous coda, which invites the viewer to decide whether it is real or only occurring in another character’s mind, carries less power given Betti returned in Violent Naples (1976).
Italian director who over a 40-year career dabbled in most genres - like many of his fellow countrymen, his film-making choices were informed by whatever was popular in Hollywood at the time, from historical epics to westerns, sex comedies to action. Girolami frequently used the pseudonym Frank Martin for international releases, and is best known by horror fans for his hilarious 1979 gorefest Zombie Holocaust. Father of the equally prolific Enzo G. Castellari, and a European boxing champion in his pre-film career.