Sunday, December 13, 2009

CONTRABAND (1980)

Renowned for his gory horror and derided for his laissez-faire approach to plot and character, Lucio Fulci's oeuvre flashes a wider genre range than one might think. He dabbled in peplum (CONQUEST), spaghetti western (FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE), and crime/poliziotteschi (this one). But haters shouldn't get too excited, because the same elements that keep Fulci on your Names of Shame list—minimal characterization, leisurely pacing, and spurting intestines—show up in most of his non-horror work as well. I'm too afraid to see his version of WHITE FANG.

CONTRABAND is pretty standard-issue crime fare. Luca is a cigarette smuggler who resists the attempts of narcotics barons to take over his trade. But narcos are notoriously not understanding and begin dispatching his friends and family with a series of awful mutilations. Luca swears revenge and the film becomes an extended game of tag with bullets and bombs.

What sets the film apart are the obvious Fulci touches. For one thing, this thing oozes and drips blood and gore. Even for the generally-wet poliziotteschi genre, CONTRABAND stands out as disconcertingly violent. Flesh is torn asunder at every turn: gunshot mouths vanish, a whole stomach is shotgun-blasted out. Those who know Fulci mostly from fare like HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY and NEW YORK RIPPER aren't going to feel lost. Less enjoyable to gorehounds and cineastes alike are the barely-there characters, of which there are more than a baker's dozen. We're introduced to a whole herd of gangsters during a well-staged funeral at sea and it gets a little trying to keep them separate as they are executed, one by one. Even worse, Fulci allows a child actor to not only appear in the movie, but waste multiple scenes. Child actors in genre film are always annoying or creepy and this film's example is no exception.

Other things that work and don't:

:) I love poppy dance music of this era, so I was elated during the disco scene, BUT the repeated main theme, funky as it is, overstays its welcome. :(

:) The violence is well-staged and exciting, BUT it's kind of a bummer that the boys get off lightly with shotguns to the guts an rapid facial reconstruction while the girls have to endure rape and slow, protracted acetylene damage. If you plan on sticking with movies of this stripe, you have to grow a spine that resists shock at such things, but it's still a little too obvious here. :(

:) The climax, with its introduction of old-timey Mafia dons (including Fulci) as slayers of the young narco usurpers, is amazing! So is the stuntwork! BUT the preceding film doesn't hold back on some boring scenes. Fulci was always a slow starter. :(

As with many things Fulci, this is very much a mixed bag. But I'd recommend it to folks who dig his horror work as well as fans of 70s/80s crime films. CONTRABAND has enough merits to make the flaws more bearable...any film in which our hero is a cigarette smuggler (and, even with Fulci's character handicaps, is still more likable than protags like Lenzi's LIVE LIKE A COP jerkoffs) is worth a viewing. And if you don't laugh during the cigarette raid, with its crooked nuns and Italian mamas hauling cartons of Marlboros down the street, you are beyond all help.

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