Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Cleopatra Jones (1973) review


Tamara Dobson (Cleopatra Jones), Shelley Winters (Mommy), Bernie Casey (Reuben Masters), Brenda Sykes (Tiffany), Antonio Fargas (Doodlebug), Paul Koslo (Baby Tony), Bill McKinney (Purdy), Esther Rolle (Mrs. Johnson), Albert Popwell (Matthew Johnson), Caro Kenyatta (Melvin Johnson), Don Cornelius

Directed by Jack Starrett

US Special Agent, Cleopatra Jones ruffles the feathers of 'Mommy', a nasty female criminal mastermind. When Cleo destroys 30 million in poppy fields owned by Mommy, the malicious mother orders the flamboyant and beautiful bombshells death sentence in addition to organizing a raid on the B & S House, an establishment to get kids clean of drugs and crime. With the help of two Karate fighting brothers, Cleo tries to clear her framed up friends and dodge bullets from Mommy's hitmen including an ostentatious crime boss, Doodlebug Simkins. After severing ties with the raving lesbian kingpin, the ambitious crime lord meets a gruesome end resulting in Mommy sending her goons to silence his surviving girlfriend. The chase is on to save the young girl, clear the name of a wrongly accused young man and bring down Mommy's drug cartel.

The great 70's director, Jack Starrett returns to the blaxploitation genre after helming SLAUGHTER (1972) for AIP. Here, it's for the major, Warner Brothers and while this film has its share of violence, there's a more comic book approach than normal for the genre. It aids immensely in the high entertainment quotient the picture contains. Starrett was a natural at directing action and exploitation films and he obviously enjoyed making them as his resume is riddled with those kinds of pictures of one kind or another. Starrett was known to take small roles in his own movies in addition to taking roles in other directors films such as his highly memorable role as Gabby Johnson in BLAZING SADDLES (1974) and his role as the callous town sheriff in FIRST BLOOD (1982).

CLEOPATRA JONES is filled with exceptional action sequences and some Bondian style plot devices that really stand out more in the flashy sequel. Cleo has a forever changing wardrobe and a souped up Corvette that has guns hidden inside the door panels. She knows martial arts and is often one step ahead of the bad guys lending her character a larger than life persona. Her first appearance at the films opening is a grand entrance ordering military planes to bomb a massive poppy field crippling Mommy's heroin crops. The next time we see Cleo is a few minutes later at the airport and it's another scene stealer wherein she pulls one over on Mommy's "welcoming party".

One of the unique aspects of starrett's movie is that the action scenes are built around Cleo's numerous skills. Whether it be her ability to smoothly command her fast car, her skills with guns, or her martial arts prowess. One top scene is the car chase on the streets of LA and down into the riverbed and back onto the street again. Cleo constantly gains the upper-hand on the villains causing a couple of car mash ups, but her corvette gets away unscathed. There are also a few scenes where assassins attempt to take Cleo down in the street. These scenes showcase her shooting skills as Cleo brandishes a formidable hand gun and some automatic weapons, too.

There are a number of martial arts sequences which were supervised by Master Bong Soo Hon. As per American action movies that featured Karate, kung fu or some other martial arts style, there is a lot of quick cuts in the editing to mask deficiencies in the choreography. Besides this, Tamara Dobson is convincing in her scenes. She puts a lot of vigor and rage in her fight scenes. She's much more convincing than Pam Grier in these types of sequences although Grier is the better screen presence. Incidentally, Dobson was the first female heroine of the blaxploitation genre. However, even though CLEOPATRA JONES was a success at the box office, Pam Grier became a sensation and gained more roles in the genre this being both an advantage and a hindrance.

Tamara Dobson strikes an imposing presence in the role of Cleo, the 6'2" black wildcat. She's definitely not afraid to get down in the action scenes and she makes the role as believable as any featuring Fred Williamson or Jim Brown. Her wardrobe is just as flashy as her character portrayal and her costume change during nearly every scene would seem to have been an influence on Pam Grier when she took on the role of FOXY BROWN (1974). A former fashion model, Dobson was once the tallest recorded actress in cinema and she also had a knack for being a clothing designer. Sadly, Dobson died on October 2nd of 2006 from complications of pneumonia and multiple sclerosis. She was 59 years old.

Bernie Casey had his own career in the blaxploitation genre showing in a supporting role in the lively western, GUNS OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1969) then moving on to the excellent race hate drama, TICK...TICK...TICK (1970). From there, he appeared in a handful of blaxploitation actioners such as HIT MAN (1972), CORNBREAD, EARL & ME (1975) and the hilarious DR. BLACK & MR. HYDE (1976). The beautiful Brenda Sykes (who plays Tiffany) also made appearances in blaxploitation movies such as MANDINGO (1975) and its sequel, DRUM (1976).

Antonio Fargas is possibly best known for his role as informant, Huggy Bear on the hit show, STARSKY & HUTCH (1975-1979). He had previously featured in a handful of blaxploitation movies such as SHAFT (1971), the extremely violent ACROSS 110TH STREET (1972), FOXY BROWN (1974) and CAR WASH (1978). Fargas also played a coach in the doomed cult comedy favorite, UP THE ACADEMY (1980).

Esther Rolle has a cameo appearance as Mrs. Johnson, the mother of Cleo's two friends, Matthew and Melvin. Rolle is most recognizable as Florida Evans, the astute mother on the hit show GOOD TIMES (1974-1979).

Shelley Winters was an Oscar winning and controversial Hollywood actress who had a long, prosperous, yet sometimes tumultuous career on both stage and screen. Like a lot of distinguished film stars, when her career was winding down in the 1970's, she began appearing in more seedy affairs, movies with a lot of exploitation value. Some of these include BLOODY MAMA (1970) where she played the real life Ma Barker alongside co-star, Robert DeNiro. She played in the Hansel & Gretal styled horror fantasy film, WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO? (1971), the BABY JANE inspired, WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? (1971), POOR PRETTY EDDIE (1975) and the Italian giant creature opus, TENTACLES (1977), which also featured the likes of Claude Akins, Henry Fonda and John Huston!

CLEOPATRA JONES (1973) is a rousing good time and one of the most enjoyable blaxploitation movies I've seen. Aside from some comments by Mommy after the opening sequence, this movie is relatively free of the typical nasty racial comments utilized in so many of these films to stir hatred towards the villains. This is a more straight ahead action film with some slight James Bond overtones and a very nice and funky score. While not as sadistically violent as most films in the genre, it's a highly influential classic and one that's well worth any fans time and a wonderful diversion for casual viewers. Make sure to check out the even more fun and bigger sequel.

This review is representative of the Warner Brothers DVD.

Cleopatra Jones & the Casino of Gold (1975) review


Tamara Dobson (Cleopatra Jones), Stella Stevens (Bianca Javan), Tanny (Mi Ling Fong), Norman Fell (Stanley Nagel), Chan Shen (Soo Da Chen), Albert Popwell (Matthew Johnson), Caro Kenyatta (Melvin Johnson), John Chang Wu Lang (David Chiang), Lin Chen Chi (Madalyna), Tino Wong (Thug)

Fighting Instructors: Tang Chia, Yuen Cheung Yan; Art Director: Johnson Tsao; Director of Photography: Alan Hume

Directed by Chuck Bail

Helping out Cleopatra Jones, the Johnson Brothers, on assignment in Hong Kong, find themselves captured by the nefarious lesbian criminal mastermind, Bianca Javan. Attempting to make a bust with a drug runner named Soo Da Chen, it is soon learned that Soo was a former crony of Bianca's now secretly cutting into her business. Cleo arrives in Hong Kong and immediately sides up with a fiesty kung fu fighting female, Mi Ling Fong and her gaggle of motorcycle riding associates.

Cleo and company find Dragon Lady Bianca also runs an elaborate golden gambling casino and with armed assassins at every turn, Cleo puts her life in serious danger. Mounting a rescue, Mi Ling and the Hong Kong Tactical Squad Seven launch an all out attack on the Dragon Lady's Casino in a bullet riddled and explosive final confrontation.

Jack Starrett did not return for directing chores on this magnificent sequel to CLEOPATRA JONES (1973). Chuck Bail of BLACK SAMSON (1974) and GUMBALL RALLEY (1976) takes over directorial duties here. He displays a masterful hand at guiding the film from one action scene to the next. This sequel is all about the action delivering twice as much bang for the buck as the first picture. For this outing, Warner Brothers teams up with Asian mogul mavens the Shaw Brothers. Warners was the studio responsible for importing the kung fu craze from Hong Kong to America after picking KING BOXER (1972) as the one to introduce the United States to the wonders of Asian action. Rechristened FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH, the hugely successful picture started a firestorm of kung fu releases all around the world. With the blaxploitation genre on the wane by 1975, it was a logical step to marry the kung fu film with the black action style.

Not only is CASINO OF GOLD a hybrid film, it contains an even stronger Bondian element than its predecessor. Here, Cleo has a far more challenging adversary in the guise of Bianca Javan played by the gorgeous Stella Stevens. Looking far more lithe than in her revealing role in SLAUGHTER (1972), in which she had no qualms about full on nudity. Here, Stevens gets rowdy looking rather lively and kinetic in the action scenes. Stevens shines twice, once taking on Chan Shen in a sword duel inside an arena encircled with large blades. At the end during the explosive battle royale, Stevens has a knock out, drag out fight with Dobson and the two tear down what's left of the casino after it's pretty much obliterated by machine gun fire and explosions.

Both characters are perfectly balanced. Both are skilled fighters and know their way around a gun. Cleopatra has twice as many action scenes as she had the first time around and choreographers, Tang Chia and Yuen Cheung Yan make her look much better than the Hapkido maneuvers showcased in part one. Bianca shows off her sword skills and willingness to put her life on the line when she partakes in a duel against one of her former associates mentioned above. Both characters are gaudy in their own inimitable ways.

Cleopatra changes outfits on a regularity akin to the previous picture, only this time, the costumes and makeup are more far fetched. Interestingly, Dobson was responsible for her own makeup. Bianca is flashy in her toys, such as her extravagant lair and the magnificent design of her casino.

Bail's movie has a little something for everyone. From its blaxploitation ties with the previous movie, to the kung fu fights, some brief sex, nudity and lesbianism, light comedic moments and even bigger action set pieces. The combined force of both Warners and Shaw really comes together to create a glossy and expensive looking production that contains some amazing stuntwork among the many highlights. The biggest being the blow out finale complete with blazing guns, explosions, kung fu and crashing motorcycles. It is glaringly obvious that a lot of effort was put into this production. Everything's bigger this time out. The soundtrack is more boisterous, the production is loftier and there's a grand scale that captures the look and feel of the James Bond flavor that the previous film only skimmed the surface of.

Tamara Dobson really comes into her own as Cleopatra Jones this time out. It's such a shame that the series didn't continue after this entry as this could have been a continuing series of adventures for the fiery and intrepid special agent. Dobson had a few good fights in her initial outing, but here, she shows off every few minutes getting into scuffles with multiple opponents even taking shots to the back with chairs and getting hit with large vases. Does she go down? Hell, no! She takes it like only Cleopatra Jones can and gets right back in the game. For this sequel, Cleo is given a partner played by Shaw starlet, Tanny Tien Ni whom was married to Shaw star, Yueh Hua that year.

Tanny Tien Ni featured predominantly in dramas, comedies and horror pictures such as the two BLACK MAGIC (1975, 1976) movies as well as grim horror films like HEX (1980) and CORPSE MANIA (1981). Here, she really gets to shine and show off her long legs in a scene where some villains sneak into her room and tie up her arms and she's left to duel with her feet. I don't doubt that there isn't a stuntman during portions of this sequence, but it's clearly her in places. She also gets behind the wheel of the car during a grand car chase near the beginning when she and Cleo pursue some of the bad guys through the mob filled streets of Hong Kong. The credits say this is her "introduction" despite appearing in films prior to this movie. She and Dobson make a wonderfully engaging team onscreen just the same.

One scene in particular recalls ENTER THE DRAGON's mirror filled finale. When the dynamic duo meet up for the second time after Mi Ling helps Cleo take care of some street thugs, they go to Mi Ling's hangout; a gymnasium with all manner of bladed and automatic weapons. Both characters playfully demonstrate their skills amid rotating mirrors with a moving target behind them. Mi Ling with her feathered darts and Cleopatra with her gun. Both hit their targets without breaking any of the spinning glass. Mi Ling's detective agency even has a typical 70's ring to it-- the Hong Kong Tactical Squad Seven. Norman Fell plays Cleo's boss, Stanley. He's frequently the butt of one liners from Cleopatra Jones. Oddly enough, Norman Fell would soon find fame on the controversial hit comedy sitcom, THREE'S COMPANY (1977-1984) playing a character named Stanley Roper.

One of the most enjoyable niceties of the film is the plethora of familiar faces from many of the Shaw Brothers movies. Both background players and supporting performers, you'll spy Yuen Shun Yee, Alan Hsu Chung Sin (the villain in SHAOLIN TEMPLE AGAINST LAMA), Yuen Wah, Tino Wong, San Kuei (CRIMINALS 4) and even Lu Feng and Kuo Chui (two of the FIVE VENOMS) as thugs or background henchmen. It's quite a sight seeing Cleopatra Jones mixing it up with some of the Shaw players. John Chang (SHAOLIN MANTIS, TWO WONDROUS TIGERS) plays one of Mi Ling's motorcycle riding operatives named David Chiang(!)

Then there's perennial Shaw Brothers bad guy, Chan Shen in the role of Soo Da Chen. It's not a particularly well developed role, but it's nice to see him clashing swords with Stella Stevens towards the end.

The gorgeous Lin Chen Chi also has a supporting role as one of Bianca's "daughters". She has a brief sex scene with Stella Stevens and two other women. Despite the potential for some sleazy cavorting, the sequence is tastefully shot. They do share a kiss in close up. Lin is naked on the bed but lying on her stomach, but you do see her buttocks.

In addition to all the familiar faces, you'll also recognize a lot of familiar Shaw kung fu movie sets including the huge pagoda seen in HAVE SWORD WILL TRAVEL (1969) and LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974). Portions of sets used for the Dragon Lady's lair will be familiar to anyone that's a fan of Shaws period martial arts pictures. There's also a shot of the Connaught Centre building, at one time the largest skyscraper in Hong Kong. It was scaled by the Mighty Peking Man in the 1977 HK film of the same name.

Released in November of 1975, CLEOPATRA JONES & THE CASINO OF GOLD was a massive bomb in Hong Kong unjustly ignored by local audiences. It didn't fare too well in the States either. The blaxploitation genre was on the wane, and although this film was a hybrid and not a full fledged black picture, it's curious why it never found an audience as it contained a lot of style, entertainment value and mindless fun. I guess it's safe to assume that the box office juggernaut, JAWS (1975) had a lot to do with it as it was released a few weeks earlier in the United States.

Fans of blaxploitation and Shaw Brothers action, as well as Bond fans, should check out this comic book fantasy super heroine adventure. Better yet, indulge yourself with a double dose of Cleo with a back to back showing of both CLEOPATRA JONES films.

This review is representative of the Warner Brothers region 2 DVD.
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