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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.

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