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Shoot First, Die Later

Shoot First, Die Later(1974)

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Italian crime thriller director Fernando Di Leo is a favorite of Quentin Tarantino -- the director has gone on record crediting Di Leo's 1972 The Italian Connection as an inspiration for Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction -- but apart from a few dubbed and often recut VHS releases, his films were not readily available on home video for Americans to see. Raro Video has made it their mission to correct that oversight. In 2011 they released the box set Fernando Di Leo Crime Collection, featuring four stand-out gangster movies on DVD (the Blu-ray edition came out in 2012), and after a few stand-alone releases in the interim, they follow it up in 2013 with Fernando Di Leo: The Italian Crime Collection Vol. 2 (Raro) on both DVD and Blu-ray.

This three-disc set boxes up Shoot First, Die Later (1974), a ruthless crime drama starring Luc Merenda as a corrupt cop on a mission of righteous vengeance (previously released as a stand-alone disc), with two disc debuts: Naked Violence (1969), a juvenile delinquent cop drama by way of social commentary, and Kidnap Syndicate (1975), a revenge thriller with Merenda, this time playing an innocent bystander roused to take justice into his own hands.

Shoot First, Die Later, one of Di Leo's best, stars Merenda as Domenico Malacarne, a hotshot cop on the Milan strike force. Young, good looking, and at the center of big, dangerous cases, he is the department poster boy for police heroism and Di Leo kicks off the film with a volatile undercover assignment and a ferocious car chase that rivals The French Connection. Just the thing to introduce Domenico as an ambitious hero with a penchant for muscular assignments and brazen action, right before revealing that he's on take. The collision of the unpredictable nature of character with the impersonal code of mafia business is at the center of Di Leo's best gangster films and revenge is big, bloody, and violent. So when Domenico's father, a modest and idealistic career cop who sacrifices all for his son (including, at one point, his moral code), is murdered by a local mafia lieutenant, Domenico goes after the mob and its business-like boss (Richard Conte), who negotiates the crisis with ruthless aplomb after his underlings botch the job.

Domenico doesn't have much dimension as a character -- he's just a guy who thrives on the adrenaline of a dangerous assignment and lives beyond his salary on the payoffs from the mob as if he's earned it -- but he takes the condemnation of his father like a slap and the combination of guilt and fury fuels his rampage in palpable. Di Leo revs up the film some of the most impressive car chases I've seen in seventies cinema. (The stunt driving in the two car chase scenes were coordinated by French stunt driver Remy Julienne, and his team gets prominent billing in the opening credits.)

Again, Italian crime cinema takes its cue from American movies and then adds its own cynical edge and melodramatic intensity. American cop heroes of the seventies were mavericks, outcasts, idealists, and obsessives, but they were always focused on justice, however they defined it. Di Leo's hero is the compromised cop who stops justifying his corruption only when he's pushed too far and crossed by his paymasters. It's not justice, it's revenge, but since he's avenging an innocent and taking out the bad guys, he'll do as the hero in this equation.

Kidnap Syndicate is much angrier and more bilious, with the outrage split between the kidnappers of the title and the dispassionate industrialist (James Mason, playing the part with silky corruption and unfeeling arrogance) whose son was the original target. Merenda plays a working class single father, a simple auto mechanic who is caught up in the high stakes game when his boy is grabbed up along with the industrialist's son. The innocent kid is just collateral damage, another bargaining chip in a game where tycoons and criminals treat human life as a business deal, something to be negotiated for maximum leverage.

Where Shoot First, Die Later features elaborate and visceral car chases, Merenda's mechanic in Kidnap Syndicate is a retired motorcycle racer and the third act relies on his biker skills to complete his vengeance against the kidnappers. While not exactly political, Di Leo makes the case here that big business and mob business are just two sides of the same coin and the working class is the victim of both. It's all in the title: the kidnapping of children of the rich is presented as veritable cottage industry masterminded by the mob with the dirty work contracted out to a network of thugs for hire. Di Leo makes a point of the business-like hierarchy of the syndicate, at first to emphasize the corporate structure of the criminal enterprise, and then to chart the father's journey to find the thugs who killed his son. His revenge isn't a matter of balancing the scales, it's simply payback from a man who hasn't anything left to live for, and thus nothing to lose.

In contrast to these two hard-edged cops-and-criminals thrillers, Naked Violence is a social drama with an exploitation hook. Think The Blackboard Jungle updated for the violent, sexually permissive late sixties by way of a police drama. The film opens with gargoylish close-ups of the boys in a class for problem kids and by the end of the opening credits, they have raped and murdered their teacher and left her sprawled naked on the desk for the police to find. The film proper follows dedicated Commisario Duca Lamberti (Pier Paolo Capponi) -- tough, compassionate, and weary of both the out-of-control social culture and the politically-motivated police command -- as he doggedly searches for the truth behind the stories told by the rogues gallery of juvenile delinquents.

The social drama ends up with a Psycho-sexual undercurrent of power and intimidation while our dedicated hero also proves to be both a tough and tender ladies' man who not only wins over the social worker (Susan Scott) but ends up making her a partner in his investigation and his romantic life, and even becomes a father figure to the most vulnerable boy of the group. It's not the usual Di Leo crime film we've come to expect in these sets, but it is effective (if blunt) and dynamic.

Shoot First, Die Later is mastered from the original 35mm negative (it still looks a little rough but that's a matter of wear on the original elements; the image is sharp and vivid) and the two others are digitally restored from less-than-stellar prints (especially Naked Violence, which is full of surface speckling and audio distortions) but look perfectly acceptable thanks to the clarity of the film image in these transfers. All feature original Italian soundtracks with new English subtitle translations plus an optional English dub soundtrack.

Supplements in this set include five interview featurettes originally made for Italian DVD, some of them produced before Di Leo's death in 2003: "The Good Fellas" (18-minute remembrance of Naked Violence with Fernando Di Leo, actor Pier Paolo Capponi, and others), "Fernando di Leo at the Cinematèque Français" (15-minute discussion with programmers at the famed cinemateque discussing Di Leo's work), "Master of the Game" (25-minute interview with Di Leo), "The Second Round of the Game" (21-minute featurette with actor Luc Merenda, assistant director Franc Lo Cascio, and editor Amedeo Giomini), and "Violent Cities: The Other Fernando Di Leo Trilogy" (a 28-minute discussion of the early career of Di Leo with the director, Meranda, and other collaborators). Also includes a booklet with (mostly anonymous and grammatically challenged) notes on the films.

By Sean Axmaker