Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Film Review: Contraband: A Film by Lucio Fulci

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Contraband aka "Luca il contrabbandiere" and "The Smuggler" is an Action/Adventure/Crime drama which is directed by the venerable Italian director Lucio Fulci who's mostly known for his brutal and gory horror films, especially his zombie ones. Like other quintessential Italian filmmakers Dario Argento and Umberto Lenzi, Fulci made a wide variety of genre films depending on what was in vogue at the time. These include Comedies, Westerns, Action/Adventure, Crime Dramas, and of course Horror films. This particular film has a very mean-sprited, sadistic undertone and features acts of extreme cruelty and violence (of course if you're a Fulci fan or a fan of Italian cinema in general this is nothing new to you). It depicts the cutthroat world of the Naples mafia, a world in which you never know who your true friends are and are liable to be stabbed in the back by just about anyone. This is the environment in which the film unfolds.

Contraband tells the story (albeit in a typical disjointed way common with other Italian Films) of a family man named Luca who also happens to be a Capo in the local Naples underworld. An expert smuggler of contraband goods (mainly ciggarettes), Luca seems to be doing well for himself until a chain of events turns everything upside down and inside out. The film opens with smugglers in speed boats transporting a shipment of contraband goods. They're doing their thing when all of a sudden the Italian Police/Coast Guard comes out of nowhere and tries to make a collar. All the smuggling boats take off with the cops in hot pursuit. The chief of police is on board and instructs them to follow the boat which seems to be weighted down the most since that one would presumably contain the merchandise. They spot Luca's boat, which contains him and his partner and brother Mickey and start to follow it. In order to create a diversion, Luca blows up the boat with the merchandise on it with a remote least I think the merch was on board. The way the story unfolds is often unclear, and leaves a lot of gaps to be filled in. Anyways, he ends up getting away.

Afterwards, a few scenes show a bit of plot development as it is established that he has a wife and child whom he loves dearly. A minor side note, his kid has the most annoying voice ever. If I had to listen to him carry on all day I'd huck myself off a cliff. Just sayin'. Anyways Luca and his brother get pissed off that the shipment got destroyed and go to consult with another local mafia capo (boss) Purlante whom he is close to. Luca's convinced that someone ratted out the shipment. Later when he and brother Mickey go for a drive on a mountain road there's a police roadblock that they end up stopping at. When stopped, Mickey gets out of the car to talk with the officer, but instead of words he receives a hail of bullets, he actually gets machine-gunned off a cliff to be precise, which is a horribly shitty way to die . Obviously, the cop turned out to be an assassin. Afterwards when being questioned by the police, Luca follows the code of Omerta (Mafia Law against snitching) and doesn't tell them anything about the shooting, in order to enact his own brand of rough justice later on. There is a funeral scene for Luca's brother which interestingly enough, takes place in smuggling boats on the water. The cops are watching the proceedings from a remote location, and identify a number of local mafia bosses present for the funeral.

Luca thinks it was another smuggler, and arch-rival named Scherino who ratted out the shipment and killed his brother. He surprises him one night, sneaking into his house and sticking a gun up in his face. He demands that Scherino take responsibility for his actions but Scherino vehemantly denies any involvement and says although he didn't like Mickey or Luca he would never have had them killed as he has respect for them. All of a sudden one of Scherino's men pistol whips Luca from behind and gains control of the situation. Once again Scherrino denies any involvement, but on principle he has his man beat the ever-loving shit out of Luca since he did get a gun stuck in his face.

Luca has a shady doctor attend to his medical needs after his beating, though it costs him a lot of money and as the movie continues and he needs continous medical attention, the Dr. milks him for all he can get, basically extorting him. He gets what he asks for because back alley physicians are hard to come by. While lying in bed recuperating, Luca's wife begs him to take it easy and get out of the business, but he steadfastly insists on going out and seeking revenge. Scherrino succeeded in establishing the fact that he wasn't involved in the murder. Luca and his mafia confederates are soon made aware of some new competition in the area, a dude named the Marsigliese. They are miffed because this guy is starting to bring in major supplies of drugs, something that offends them as they are only involved in "honest" crimes like smuggling tobacco, fixing horse races, and pimping women haha. All of a sudden the other bosses start getting knocked off one by one in a series of brutal, very graphic executions. It seems as though there is a power struggle going on and it's established that the narcotics smuggler the Marsigliese is behind it. The bosses are getting systematically whacked one by one. When it's Purlante's turn, an interesting turn of events leads to him very narrowly escaping death. What happens next is that Luca ends up being double-crossed by people close to him, and the Marsigliese kidnaps his wife and kid. Luca goes on a mad mission to kill the Marsigliese and rescue his family (and receives a bit of unexpected help, which is really random considering there was next to no buildup to this plot twist). The ending was fairly predictable, but it doesn't detract from the entertainment value of the rest of the film...with it's sharp dialogue, competent acting and extreme graphic violence. In one of the most brutal scenes in the film, a woman who tries to burn the Marsigliese on a dope deal, in turn gets her face burned off by a torch in an uncomfortably long closeup camera shot, which is totally disgusting.

I've read other reviews where the film was maligned as a weak effort by Fulci. They focus too much on the disjointed plot and not enough on the acting, cinematography (there's an awesome scene shot in a disco which makes great use of strobe lighting), also peppered throughout the film is more use of interesting camera angles and shots, it seems that many Italian directors aren't as afraid as their foreign counterparts to take chances in that area. Occasionally it doesn't work out as well as other times, but for the most part adds more stylishness and panache to their brand of Italian cinema. One thing I would have liked to see is more use of the smuggling speedboats involved in chase scenes and the like. I think Fulci could have played up the "on the water" angle a little bit more, as that aspect distinguishes it from a lot of movies with a similar plot/aesthetic. The special effects are just right, plenty of blood squibs and skull fragmentation via violent gunshots. The soundtrack is perfect for the plot as well, alternating between sleazy euro-disco and weird, percussion driven synthesizer funk. I can understand the frustration with the plot which jumps all over the place leaving several gaps, but as stated before this is common with Italian films. I'm not sure if it's due to translation or not but it's certainly a big possibility. If you start to delve into italian films this is something you'll have to continue to slightly overlook. The entertainment value of this movie is high despite the few aforementioned shortcomings. Definately Netflix Queue worthy. If you're into this one you should check out some other Poliziotteschi/Euro Crime thrillers especially the ones by Unberto Lenzi who is widely considered the master of this genre....directing classics such as "Almost Human", "Violent Naples", "Gang War in Milan". Many of these movies star the same two actors, Tomas Millian and John Saxon in rotating good guy/bad guy roles and one starts to relish their presence and find it interesting to see where they'll pop up next. To conclude, Contraband is an underrated film which should be viewed by all who have an interest in Italian Genre films, or anyone interested in a hardboiled action thriller.

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