Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Three the Hard Way (1974) review


Jim Brown (Jimmy Lait), Fred Williamson (Jagger Daniels), Jim Kelly (Mister Keys), Jay Robinson (Monroe Feather), Sheila Frazier (Wendy Kane), Alex Rocco (Lt. Di Nisco)

Directed by Gordon Parks Jr.

"My dear troubles are almost over. You see we have a...scientific institution here. We seek humane solutions to social disorders. The ultimate purpose is a cleansing...a purification of the races on this continent...particularly on this great nation of ours."

***WARNING! This review contains some nudity***

After a friend of his escapes a camp run by a psychotic white Supremacist, Jimmy Lait learns of a worldwide plot of genocide on African Americans. The maniacal Monroe Feather, along with the cruel scientist, Dr. Fertrero, have devised a special serum with the purpose of poisoning the water supply. Harmless to Caucasians, this chemical is lethal to blacks. Killing Lait's friend while he's in the hospital, the villains kidnap his girlfriend in the process. Refusing to work with the police, Lait gathers his two friends and the deadly trio take on Feather and his army of racist followers.

Gordon Parks Jr. directed one of the quintessential blaxploitation movies with SUPER FLY in 1972. However, in 1974, he delivers what is most probably the biggest black action classic of that decade. Striving for, and often times reaching a Bondian level of extravagance, THREE THE HARD WAY delivers three times the action and violence normally found in these movies. The storyline itself is a bit risque and totally a product of its time. It's doubtful something like it could be done today.

The derogatory speech normally associated with these films is kept to a minimum and not quite as incendiary as it is in many other genre entries. That's not to say it isn't there, it's just not as prominent as is often the case. The budget seems to have been much higher here than what was frequently afforded a blaxploitation flick. This may be why the accent is more on the spectacle as opposed to the squalid elements such low budget productions rely on to stand out from the pack of bigger, more opulent actioners.

That's not to say THREE THE HARD WAY is all grand scale flash. It never forgets its roots and comes off as a larger scale exploitation movie. This is the kind of film where a dozen or so guys with machine guns can open fire on our heroes in an amusement park without alerting the police.

Ditto for Jim Kelly who takes out about a dozen crooked policemen in the middle of a busy New York street using his patently slow and lethargic kung fu. Both Brown and Williamson just happen to show up right after. This type of bad movie cliche would be played to the hilt in the absolutely amazing KING of the bad movies, KILL SQUAD (1982). Any fan of terrible movies hasn't really experienced bad movie heaven till they've viewed the gutter glory that is KILL SQUAD.

Anyway, back to THREE THE HARD WAY. Cars randomly and spectacularly explode when they go over a building, or a cliff, or crash into a road sign and all in slow motion, too. Our heroes mow down hordes of underlings without so much as a scratch. This happens quite a bit. There's probably over a dozen gun battles in this picture and the heroes are always outnumbered almost to a degree that the great Chang Cheh would be proud of. For the record, Jim Brown does take a bullet in the side early in the movie during a car wash skirmish. With an action sequence seemingly around every corner, it's no surprise that Hal (CANNONBALL RUN) Needham was the stunt coordinator for this picture. Amongst all the shoot outs, there's a plethora of car crashes and explosions, one of Needham's specialties.

There's also the required nudity inherent in the genre. It comes in the form of three tough motorcycle riding ladies. Jagger is friends with the feisty females and their specialty, torture, is put to good use on a captured bad guy. The singing group, The Impressions have a cameo in the film in addition to singing the theme song.

Jim Brown is the main star here and his performance is curiously underpar compared with his roles in other movies such as EL CONDOR (1970), SLAUGHTER (1972) and even exploitation fare such as I ESCAPED FROM DEVIL'S ISLAND (1973). Brown delivers in the action department, though. He just doesn't seem to have his heart in this one during the non fighting sequences. But considering this film is mostly blazing guns, martial arts and explosions, there's little to worry about as far as thespian attributes are concerned. The main thrust of this film is to highlight all the major black action ingredients, but do it on a bigger scale. Brown was the first notable black action star appearing in such big films as THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967), ICE STATION ZEBRA (1968) and also westerns such as 100 RIFLES (1969).

Although everyone generally seems to be enjoying themselves, Fred Williamson seems to be having the most fun. I always found Williamson to be overflowing with charisma, but seriously lacking in the action department, particularly when martial arts were concerned. However, 'The Hammer' keeps it strictly to 'gun fu' for this one.

Despite him not being the main attraction, Williamson stands out over his two co-stars. Some of 'The Hammer's' best movies are BLACK CAESAR (1972) and BUCKTOWN (1975). He's done his share of terrible movies, too, such as his Jesse Crowder series that includes DEATH JOURNEY and MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS (both 1976). The bulk of his resume may not be very prestigious, but Williamson has had the longest and most prolific career compared with his colleagues.

Jim Kelly emotes less than a brick wall, but does his best Bruce Lee impersonation during his handful of fight sequences. Although he was a former Karate champion, it doesn't always show in his action scenes. Possibly it's his tight wardrobe, but Kelly often looks sloppy here. Actor, David Chow, playing one of Kelly's students, fares much better. His acting isn't much to write home about, either. Kelly will probably be best remembered for his role in ENTER THE DRAGON (1973). His career was very brief ending with horrible movies such as BLACK SAMURAI (1977) and ONE DOWN, TWO TO GO (1982). Kelly is unintentionally hilarious here. In a couple scenes, his voice comes off like he's in a dubbed action picture from Asia. Kelly did appear in a Hong Kong kung fu movie, THE TATTOO CONNECTION (1978).

The great character actor, Jay Robinson gets to chew some scenery himself essaying the role of white supremacist and all around bastard, Monroe Feather. His scenes are choice and he speaks his lines with a Hitler-like verve. He BELIEVES what he is doing is best for the world. His army of racists, their costumes and his groups emblem appear to be patterned after the Nazi regime. Robinson seldom frowns or looks distraught. He maintains a deliciously evil grin throughout. Robinson made a career out of playing villains and assorted other character roles on numerous television programs.

When I first read that this film was hitting DVD courtesy of Warner Home Video, it was cause for celebration as this picture has been floating around on the bootleg circuit for years in an edited version. This widescreen presentation is the best the film as ever looked. This blaxploitation favorite has been long overdue for a restored release and this version, sans any extras, is a must own for fans of the genre.

The director is the son of Gordon Parks, the director of SHAFT (1971), one of the most influential black films of all time. Gordon Parks Jr. has followed admirably in his fathers footsteps having helmed two solid entries in the genre. With THREE THE HARD WAY, Parks has created a film that is the 'Greatest Hits' of the blaxploitation genre. Interestingly, Brown, Williamson and Kelly reunited for the US/Italian blaxploitation hybrid, TAKE A HARD RIDE in 1975. The three joined forces one last time for the lousy ONE DOWN, TWO TO GO (1982). Bordering on parody, THREE THE HARD WAY is a nonstop barrage of over the top action, nudity and violence that equals out to a rousing crowd pleaser of brain dead fun. Containing no real characterizations whatsoever, THREE THE HARD WAY only asks that you sit back and enjoy the ride.

This review is representative of the Warner Brothers 2 disc set. There are three other movies in this set: BLACK BELT JONES (1974), HOT POTATO (1976) and BLACK SAMSON (1974).

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