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Retro Review: DEATH RAGE (1976)

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DEATH RAGE
(Italy - 1976; US release 1978)

Directed by Anthony M. Dawson (Antonio Margheriti). Written by Guido Castaldo and Giacomo Furia. Cast: Yul Brynner, Martin Balsam, Barbara Bouchet, Massimo Ranieri, Giancarlo Sbragia, Giacomo Furia, Sal Borgese, Loris Bazzocchi, Rosario Borelli, Luigi Williams (Luigi Bonos), Renzo Marignano, Tomasso Palladino. (R, 96 mins)

A rather routine and formulaic Eurocrime outing from well-traveled Italian journeyman Antonio Margheriti, 1976's DEATH RAGE was a fixture on late-night TV and in video stores in the '80s and since has appeared on countless "50 Action Hits!" public domain DVD sets over the years, always looking like garbage and usually presented in a butchered 76-minute cut culled from an ancient TV print. It hit US theaters in 1978 at 85 minutes courtesy of short-lived S.J. International Pictures, but has just been issued on Blu-ray by Dark Force Entertainment--imagine, if you can, Code Red's less stable cousin--in a best-it-can-possibly-look transfer sourced from the original 96-minute Italian version, because physical media is dead. It's still got some print damage and scratches, but visually, it's a drastic improvement over every other version that's out there. The English soundtrack covers the 85 minutes that comprised the US release, with the eleven extra minutes scattered throughout presented in Italian with hit-or-miss subtitling, but it's doubtful you'll miss any important information. DEATH RAGE isn't really a standout in either the Eurocrime subgenre or in Margheriti's filmography, but it is of some historical significance as the big screen swan song of the great Yul Brynner (1920-1985), who would spend the remaining years of his life constantly touring with stage productions of THE KING AND I, arguably his most famous role and the one that won him the Best Actor Oscar for the 1956 film version.






Brynner played the villainous "Deaf Man" in the 1972 Burt Reynolds cop movie FUZZ and enjoyed a surprise box-office hit riffing on THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN in his memorable turn as the robotic gunslinger in 1973's WESTWORLD, but those were rare highlights in an ongoing slump dating back to the late 1960s. 1975's post-apocalyptic THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR was a minor hit at drive-ins, but by 1976, his brief resurgence was over. He was reduced to an embarrassing cameo reprising his role as the Gunslinger in the lackluster WESTWORLD sequel FUTUREWORLD, and after heading to Italy to star in DEATH RAGE, he decided he was done with movies. It isn't exactly a Brynner classic, but it's a better one to go out on than FUTUREWORLD. He at least gets to spend the whole movie looking like a stone-cold badass: dressed in black, doing hardcore shit like throwing a guy under a speeding train and shooting another right in the gut with no hesitation and letting him bleed out even after the guy cooperates and gives him the info he demanded, and perhaps most importantly, spending long stretches of screen time with a frequently nude Barbara Bouchet. Hey...it's good to be the King.


DEATH RAGE in Toledo, OH on 9/29/1978


Far more convoluted than it needs to be in its original version--a problem that was actually rectified by the US cut with hired-gun editor and "creative adviser" Fima Noveck streamlining the opening 15 minutes and relaying the clunky exposition in a much more concise fashion that really improves the film overall--DEATH RAGE (shot as CON LA RABBIA AGLI OCCHI, or ANGER IN HIS EYES) was misleadingly sold in America as a vigilante thriller in the vein of DEATH WISH, with the poster art screaming "Bronson started it...Brynner finishes it!" However, it's really just a conventional Italian crime flick with Brynner as Peter Marciani, a retired and still-feared hit man summoned from NYC to the old country when he's informed that a mob hit at a racetrack in Naples was commissioned by Gennaro Gallo (Giancarlo Sbragia), the same top capo who ordered the death of his younger brother in NYC years earlier. He heads to Naples and meets up with Angelo (Massimo Ranieri, looking a lot like MEAN STREETS-era Harvey Keitel), an ambitious young hood who witnessed the racetrack hit and is eager to make his name under the tutelage of feared legend such as Marciani, who's been out of the game but whose lethal exploits are still whispered about in mob circles. The cops--headed by a perpetually irate commissario (Martin Balsam, who likely worked on Franco Prosperi's 1976 polizia MEET HIM AND DIE during the same trip to Italy)--also know that Marciani is in town and they desperately want to avoid an all-out mob war. Of course, it happens anyway with multiple botched attempts on Marciani's life--including acid in place of the eye drops he uses for a psychosomatic vision issue that he's had since witnessing his brother's murder-- that inevitably lead to him launching a one-man war on Gallo's organization.


DEATH RAGE in Toledo, OH on 9/29/1978



He also finds time for romance with stripper Anny, played by Bouchet, whose nude scenes were significantly trimmed in the US cut. Quentin Tarantino screened his print of DEATH RAGE at the New Beverly in L.A. in 2007 and flew Bouchet over from Europe for the occasion, hosting an audience Q&A where she told several stories about not getting along with Brynner and how unpleasant he was with the crew. Regardless of his alleged boorish behavior behind the scenes, he appears to be having a good time here. He has no chemistry with Bouchet but establishes a nice rapport with Ranieri (the two also appeared together in 1971's THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD), even though the younger actor's "eager protege" role seems completely superfluous and he really has nothing consequential to do until the very end. Margheriti was as much of a journeyman as every other Italian genre director of his day, and like all of them, he had his specialties, like his 1960s space operas and his 1980s commando jungle explosion movies. He just doesn't seem as engaged with DEATH RAGE, the type of post-GODFATHER Eurocrime/polizia offshoot more in the wheelhouse of a Fernando Di Leo (CALIBER 9, THE ITALIAN CONNECTION) or an Umberto Lenzi (ALMOST HUMAN, ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH), though he would follow it with one of his best films, 1978's wonderfully grimy, slushy, NYC-blizzard-shot Lee Van Cleef heist thriller THE SQUEEZE. DEATH RAGE does have an effective score by Guido and Maurizio De Angelis, though the fast tempos and blaring horns during the action sequences sound a lot like Franco Micalizzi cues from a Lenzi polizia. There's also a long mid-film car chase, and it's too bad Margheriti never finds a use for the apparently mandatory stock footage shot from Sergio Martino's THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS, with a car crashing though a stack of cardboard boxes engulfed in flames.


DEATH RAGE opening in Toledo, OH on 9/29/1978





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