Urban Action Collection: 4 Film Favorites
Black Belt Jones (1974) / Hot Potato (1976) / Black Samson (1974) / Three the Hard Way (1974)
|Studio: Warner Bros.|
Film Length: Various
Aspect Ratio: 16:9
Subtitles: English SDH, French
Release Date: January 12, 2010
Warner Bros. Home Video's "4 Film Favorites" series has traditionally been used to offer budget-priced re-packagings of existing DVD releases, but in this case, is used to offer four previously unavailable on DVD films in the urban action/blaxploitation genre, three of them featuring Jim Kelly. For an MSRP of under US$15, viewers can be transported to a time in cinema history when the budgets were low, but the platform shoes and afros were high.
Black Belt Jones (1974 - Sequoin/Warner - 85 minutes - Rated R) **½
Directed By: Robert Clouse
Starring: Jim Kelly, Gloria Hendry, Scatman Crothers, Eric Laneuville, Alan Weeks, Andre Philippe, Malik Carter
Jim Kelly plays the title character in Black Belt Jones. As the film opens, Jones turns down a request from the LA Police to help infiltrate the criminal organization of gangster Don Steffano (Phillipe) on the grounds that it is "suicidal". He changes his tune after Steffano squeezes local drug pusher Pinky (Carter) to pressure Pop Byrd (Crothers) into turning over his martial arts academy, which occupies a soon to be valuable piece of real estate. When Pinky's rough treatment of the elderly Pop results in his death, Jones begins to plot his revenge. He finds an unexpected ally in Pop's estranged daughter Sydney (Hendry) who proves to be a capable martial artist in her own right.
Black Belt Jones attempts to capitalize on the success that Jim Kelly had in a supporting role in Enter the Dragon by re-teaming him with director Robert Clouse in a hybrid blaxploitation/martial arts film. As impressive a screen figure as Kelly appears to be when fighting, he does not have the acting chops necessary to be the centerpiece of an entire film. This becomes painfully obvious during the scenes in which he is supposed to be verbally sparring and developing a romance with the character played by Gloria Hendry.
Performance-wise, the film is not without its compensations, though, which include any moment where Ms. Henry is playing things tough and kicking henchman butt. When she puts on her game face and takes a fighting stance, she somehow comes across more convincingly than most of the actors playing martial arts students. This makes the climactic battle where she spends most of the time watching Kelly battle it out with bad guys in a car wash a bit disappointing. Also enjoyable are any scene with scenery chewing Malik Carter as a drug dealing/gang-leading pool hall operator and some fun interplay between Scatman Crothers as Pops and Esther Sutherland as his overbearing steady lady friend during the first act of the film.
Great acting chemisty and domestic humor are not what Black Belt Jones is all about, though. This film lives and dies based on the success of its action scenes, and they are generally pretty solid if not always spectacular. As fun as it is to watch Kelly mowing down gangsters with his martial arts skills, the film never really develops a worthy adversary for him. This undermines the climax somewhat, but Director Clouse is skillful enough at staging action and selling on-screen violence, that the absence of a truly imposing antagonist is not a fatal flaw. Clouse and his editors keep the energy high enough throughout that one is inclined to let some of the more ludicrous elements, such as how a Polaroid camera is used for a heist by Kelly and a bunch of trampoline gymnast girls, pass with a smile rather than the eye roll it truly deserves.
Hot Potato (1976 - Warner - PG - 87 Minutes - Rated PG)*
Director: Oscar WilliamsIn Hot Potato, Jim Kelly plays Jones, the leader of a team of US agents, including the constantly bickering Chicago (Binney) and Rhino (Memmoli), on a mission to rescue Leslie Dunbar (Brown), the kidnapped daughter of a US Senator. Leslie has been kidnapped by a warlord named Rangoon (Hiona) who has been playing both sides for profit in an emerging civil war in the East Asian country of Chang Lon. Rangoon wants to blackmail the Senator into killing a foreign aid bill that would avert the war. Jones' team is aided by a serious and highly skilled local agent named Pam (Tsu), who is constantly irritated by the goofball tendencies of Chicago and Rhino. The rescue mission is complicated by Rangoon's employment of June (also Brown), a lookalike double for Leslie. When impostor June is rescued by the team as Rangoon planned, he is enraged to learn that she has stolen some incriminating evidence that would reveal his double dealings to the warring factions. Jones and his crew are subsequently pursued through the jungle by Rangoon's massive forces of soldiers and martial artists.
Starring: Jim Kelly, George Memmoli, Geoffrey Binney, Irene Tsu, Judith Brown, Sam Hiona
Hot Potato is the worst film in this collection by a pretty wide margin. It is also a bit of an odd duck since it has neither the "Urban Action", nor afro-centrism of the other titles in the set. It attempts to blend martial arts, action, intrigue, romance, high adventure, and low comedy in a manner that Jackie Chan would perfect over the next decade (Well,... not so much the romance, but he tried). Unfortunately, director Oscar Williams stumbles over every single one of these elements. Every joke is severely oversold by a combination of flat indulgent performances, poorly paced editing, and cartoonish music and sound effects. One eventually starts to ponder why they did not just go all the way and add a sitcom laugh track as well. The action scenes are terribly dull, and only liven up when Kelly is facing off against groups of Hong Kong stuntmen. These scenes are still staged poorly, but Kelly is at least fast enough to give the impression of being a skilled fighter. As bad as the scenes involving hand to hand combat are, the scenes involving weapons are even worse. The poor staging, bloodless violence, and completely unrealistic set-ups make the television series The A-Team look like a gritty guerrilla war documentary by comparison.
The cast is universally terrible with George Memmoli being particularly painful to watch as the corpulent Rhino. Memmoli was actually a decent actor with a background in comedy, but he is completely undermined by the idiotic screenplay, embarrassing costume design, and poor direction all designed to try to convince us that his character is hilarious because he is fat and obnoxious. The rest of the cast fares better only because the screen play does not spend as much effort at trying to make us laugh at them.
Almost every advancement in the plot piles another layer of illogical nonsense on to the proceedings, and the film is filled with technical gaffes. Since the only entertainment value I found throughout the film's entire running time was spotting these bloopers, I will not list too many of them here. One major gaffe occurs in a scene in which Jim Kelly is attacked by a large group of martial artists posing as statues at a temple. It is staged at night, and as Kelly approaches the temple, the human statues (which are obvious to all viewers due to their constant twitching) can be seen against the background of what looks like a real temple, although these particular shots seem to suffer from heavy grain and other film artifacts. When they attack, the background goes almost completely black and they are clearly at a different location. One shot even seems to reveal a fluorescent light in the distant background. It appears that the film crew were either not allowed to shoot at the temple location or that the location footage was unusable due to technical reasons and they could not afford to go back for re-shoots.
The only two positives the film has going for it are the use of Thailand locations and the Hong Kong stunt teams who play the faceless minions of Rangoon. The action scenes are staged too poorly for the stunt players to save them, but one can at least appreciate the exotic jungle scenery, and it is fun for Hong Kong film fans to scan the faces of the extras to spot the occasional future stars among their ranks such as Yuen Biao and Ching-Ling Lam.
Black Samson (1974 - Omni/Warner - 88 Minutes - Rated R) ***
Director: Charles BailIn Black Samson, Rockne Tarkington plays Samson, the proprietor of an urban nightclub who is viewed as a righteous man by his local community. His efforts to keep drug dealers off of his block eventually attract the ire of hot-headed Italian mobster Johnny Nappa (Smith). Johnny's Uncle Joe (Vandis) is the head of a very large crime syndicate. Joe strongly discourages Johnny from using hardball tactics to squeeze Samson, but Samson's constant rebuffing of his bribes and attempts at intimidation eventually drive the racist Johnny into a frenzy. As Nappa's tactics get more severe, Samson finds himself forced to contend with assaults, espionage, a fire-bombing, and, the last straw, the kidnapping of his woman, Leslie (Speed).
Starring: Rockne Tarkington, William Smith, Connie Strickland, Carol Speed, Michael Payne, Joe Tornatore, Titos Vandis, Napoleon Whiting, John Alderman
Black Samson is a somewhat underrated entry in the blaxploitation genre, possibly because, fair or otherwise, Tarkington never quite achieved the star wattage of other leading men in the genre such as Richard Roundtree or Fred Williamson. He is certainly every bit as skilled an actor as those stars. Plot-wise, the film is a pretty standard story about mobsters trying to squeeze a business owner out of his neighborhood. The film is also filled with the type of head-scratching contradictions that are hallmarks of the blaxploitation genre. On the one hand, you have the strong black male protagonist standing up to crooked racist thugs to fight for his community and ultimately inspiring them with his righteousness. On the other hand, said righteous man is the proprietor of a strip club in which he keeps a pet lion.
In the face of such contradictions, Director Charles Bail and leading man Tarkington wisely choose to underplay things. Tarkington projects a calm and cool demeanor. As Samson, he speaks softly, literally carries a big stick, and only his dashikis are loud. Most of the cast follows suit with the notable exceptions of Carol Speed as Samson's girlfriend Leslie and dependable B-movie heavy William Smith as Johnny Nappa. The waif-like Speed is allowed to overact to the extreme, especially in any scene that involves getting hysterical and/or crying. Smith's character is written as an irredeemably evil racist sexist sadist, but he brings an inexplicably charismatic "Kirk Douglas on steroids" quality to his performance that makes him more interesting than he has any right to be.
Director Bail proves to be a steady hand behind the scenes, eliciting decent performances from his actors while also handling action sequences with aplomb. Awkward pacing and cutting around dialog sequences is almost as much a staple of the low-budget 70s blaxploitation genre as corrupt cops and racist gangsters, but it never seems to be a problem here. Similarly, the pacing and editorial skill with which the film's climactic car chase and alley ambush sequences are assembled are such that I never even reflected on how inherently ridiculous they were until the film was over. The score by New Orleans legend Allen Touissant is also a big plus. In the end, Black Samson is a pretty solid entry for fans of the genre that greatly overachieves given the silliness built into its screenplay. My only real disappointment is that it violates the dramatic rule that I believe was first espoused by Kafka that if you introduce a pet lion in the first act, the lion will maul someone in the final act.
Three the Hard Way (1974 - Allied Artists - 90 Minutes - Rated R) **½
Director: Gordon Parks, Jr.
Starring: Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Jim Kelly, Sheila Frazier, Jay Robinson, Charles MacGregor, Alex Rocco
In Three the Hard Way, record producer Jimmy Lait (Brown) enlists the aid of his resourceful friends Jagger (Williamson) and Keyes (Kelly) when his girlfriend Wendy (Frazier) is kidnapped. They eventually discover that Wendy's kidnapping is linked to a genocidal plot by white supremacist Monroe Feather (Robinson) to poison the water supplies of Washington D.C., Detroit, and Los Angeles with a drug concocted by Dr. Fortrero (Angarola) that is lethal to blacks but harmless to whites. Jimmy, Jagger, and Keyes must split up to save the cities and then regroup to try to rescue Wendy and take down Feather's organization once and for all.
On paper, Three the Hard Way looks like the urban action/blaxploitation film to end all urban action/blaxploitation films. It teams up three legitimate leading men of the genre, features perhaps the perfect paranoid plot for the genre, has a score filled with music by the Impressions (post-Curtis Mayfield), and is directed by Gordon Parks, Jr., the man who helmed Superfly two years earlier. Unfortunately, the film does not quite live up to the expectations raised by those individual elements.
The film simply has too many instances where its low budget seams are showing to be taken seriously. Obvious technical issues abound including but not limited to long-dead corpses that cannot stop twitching, inconsistent day for night photography, frequent instances of unsynchronized post-dubbed dialog, stunt performers who look nothing like the actors (or actresses) they are doubling, and a somewhat legendary continuity gaffe where Jim Kelly's footwear changes from alligator shoes matching his leather pants to sneakers and back again during a scene where he is applying a martial arts beatdown to a group of cops who tried to plant drugs in his Lincoln. The screenplay is full of holes, with a plot that lurches forward via abrupt nonsensical advances. The ending gives every indication that the filmmakers ran out of money and had to improvise. Of the three leads, only Williamson is a skilled enough actor to sell the uniformly terrible dialog.
And yet, with all of these flaws and even more I have not listed, I still have an inexplicable affection for the film. Certain elements, such as the trio of multi-ethnic dominatrix biker ladies with color coded red, white and blue leather and helmets, the tendency for any car to explode at the slightest impact (happening so frequently that I suspect they blew most of the film's budget on stunts), and the cartoonish evil of Jay Richardson (who is forever imprinted on my youthful memory as "Dr. Shrinker" from the Sid and Marty Krofft Saturday morning program) tilt things in the direction of camp. This has the effect of making the film enjoyable because of its flaws rather than despite them. In any case, fans of the genre have to see this film at least once, but whether you want to see it again will be a function of your degree of appreciation for "so bad it's good" cinema.
Note: I have heard rumblings on the internet and elsewhere that there is a missing scene in between the moment where Jimmy, Jagger, and Keyes get into Keyes' Lincoln after the police fight and when they abruptly find themselves being assaulted in a car wash. I have never seen the film with such a scene intact, and cannot weigh in on its editorial history. Do not let that stop you from doing so yourself in the forum thread for this review. Also, TV fans may want to keep an eye out for a small role early in the film played by a very young (and very long-haired) Corbin Bernsen.