Tuesday, March 5

Some quick thoughts on Highway Racer (Poliziotto Sprint) (1977)

Pony Canyon's Japanese Retail VHS
The facebreaker variant of Franco Nero, Maurizio Merli, stars as a brash cop known for high risk driving that usually ends in broken-bodied partners and costly shop repairs while on the beat. This understandably raises the ire of his once crack wheelman commander who nearly throws him on desk duty until a series of exacting robberies by a team of drivers in brown Citroens terrorize the city. Strained for skilled drivers to give chase, the feuding pair must work together, with Merli taken under the wing of his boss to hone his natural talent and go undercover to infiltrate the gang headed by another master driver.

This breezy Italian crime potboiler directed by Stelvio Massi appears to be the target of derision by some poliziesco fans citing the shift made by its leading man away from the prior, breakthrough police action efforts. Merli, known for putting so much passion into his hard-nosed roles that he'd end up actually striking fellow actors during screen fights, combs the part out of his hair and shaves off his trademark mustache that defined his appearance during his career. The actor cited this as his favorite role and it's clear by the aforementioned changes and spirited performance that Merli was trying to stretch his appeal onto new ground.  

The result is a different, less stuffy style of bravado that hurts the initial impression of what's supposed to be an inexperienced, yet daring hotheaded officer. Merli simply exudes an easy, likable confidence no matter the situation straight off the bat. This makes the character's history of rolled squad cars and gravely injured passengers merely seem like a string of bad luck. So there's little difference in his Rocky-like transition from law-givin' Alfa drivin' badass to ultimate law-givin' Ferrari drivin' badass.

The plot weaves through predictability and the ample car chases lack the sense of geography exhibited by other directors like the great Enzo G. Castellari that cranked out a slew of these Dirty Harry answers. There's some nice automotive stunt work, most of which obviously shot in real traffic, including a car clipping a real stuntman that looks like it could have been easily fatal. Yet like many other Italian offerings of this period, the conclusion seems compartmentalized from the rest of the feature and the credits can't seem to roll fast enough after the head baddie bites the flame-engulfed steering column. Still, the stupidly English re-titled Highway Racer is entertaining and never once bogs in spite of its meager aims and status as a second tier poliziesco.

I viewed Pony Canyon's Japanese VHS which might be the only way to see Highway Racer in English and correctly framed in 1.85:1 widescreen. While very mild white speckling is constant, the picture quality of this release is truly excellent for analog. The dubbing is very game and all of the credits are in English; leading to the assumption that some entity believed the film could have traction in the U.S. theatrically. Although given the fact this film never even made it to VHS stateside, it's safe to say those hopes were quickly dashed and Highway Racer quickly sunk into true oblivion.

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