Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Reel Bad Cinema: Black Belt Jones (1974) review



Jim Kelly (Black Belt Jones), Gloria Hendry (Sydney), Alan Weeks (Toppy), Andre Philippe (Don Stefano), Scatman Crothers (Wesley "Papa" Byrd), Eric Laneuville (Quincy), Malik Carter (Pinky), Mel Novak (Blue Eyes), Earl Maynard (June Bug)

Directed by Robert Clouse

The Short Version: This terribly entertaining Robert Clouse martial arts flick features Jim Kelly as the Karate choppin' soul brutha Black Belt Jones doing his best Bruce Lee impression. With fists and feet flyin' and testifyin', Jones bounces, pounces and trounces mobsters and street punks with true grit and that's no shit! Gloria Hendry is the hot, soul-sista' kung fu mama hearin' no sass before kickin' yo' ass! Takin' no shit with a body that won't quit, she's out for revenge on the muthas' that killed her daddy, Big Papa Byrd. Together they're the dynamite dynamic duo. BLACK BELT JONES is bad, real BAD, but it's a rib-ticklin', jive-talkin' good time. Ya' dig?

In order to ensure a new civic center gets constructed, the mob buys up all the property in the area save for a Karate school run by Papa Byrd. The Italian mob, aided by black gangster Pinky, puts the squeeze on Byrd till he don't sing no more. Sydney, Byrd's daughter, shows up to take over the school and take out Pinky. Black Belt Jones, all around Karate master, bad actor and one handsome dude who poses constantly, joins Sydney to battle Pinky and his Bogarts; or, as he puts it, treacherous niggas'. Lots of shit-talkin' and semi-engaging fight scenes; and the frozen-fish-slapped-against-brick-wall sound effects ensure an enjoyable bad movie time of the highest order.

It's a given that Robert Clouse will forever be remembered as the guy who made ENTER THE DRAGON (1973). He's done a handful of truly well made movies, but mostly a lot of bad ones. BLACK BELT JONES falls into the latter camp and wallows all around in its badness as much as the characters do during the soapsuds soaked finale.Yes, both Jones and Sydney battle the mobsters half-naked at a car wash that's overflowing with an ever growing blob of soap and bubbles.

As silly as that is, the preceding sequence involved our good guy and good girl engaging in a bizarre form of foreplay before getting it on -- they run around a beach taking swings at one another while popping a man's balloons and busting a fat guys guitar all to hell. The things we do for love.

Despite Jim Kelly being (badly) possessed by what I assume is the ghost of Bruce Lee during his fights (courtesy of choreographer Bob Wall), the action scenes and the situations surrounding them seem patterned after the HK template from that time period more so than the US style. The assault on the Black Byrd Karate gym for example, is highly reminiscent of the one seen in FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH (1973); the 1972 HK film better known now under its original KING BOXER title. It was the first kung fu picture to open the floodgates in America before Bruce Lee.

The use of trampolines as a plot device almost seems to poke fun of the HK pictures that likewise used them -- hidden offscreen to enable the heroes and villains to leap high into the air with the greatest of ease. Only here, trampolines are used by Jones and his all girl squad to mask their sneaking into the Italian gangsters stronghold.

It's difficult to tell whether or not Oscar Williams' script was supposed to have been serious, or if Clouse is camping it up to 11 with the glaringly goofy aura that permeates nearly ever shot. Just what the hell is up with that funeral sequence?! As it is, BLACK BELT JONES comes off almost as a send-up of the genre, although Kelly seems to be taking things very seriously; especially where the fights are concerned. 

For whatever reason, Kelly feels the need to pose in nearly all his scenes. He can't even push a button on an elevator without busting out some damn Karate moves. He does this through the whole thing. His near constant posing quickly becomes parody. But when he speaks dialog, it's like a brick wall has taken his place. When most people say things like, "I'm gonna kick his goddamn ass", they say it with conviction. Not Kelly. He says it like he's telling a friend he's gonna go fix a sandwich.

Gloria Hendry comes off much better in both her acting and fight scenes -- in the few moments she's allowed to shine. She makes you forget all about Black Belt Jones in her first big fight scene when she goes looking for Pinky. Unlike Jones' shit talkin', she says "I'll make you look like a sick faggot" with the utmost of conviction. Her moves while thrashing the jerks in Pinky's pool hall are fluid and makes one wish the movie was titled BLACK BELT SYDNEY instead

Unfortunately, Hendry never fights again on this level. She gets a few minor moments during the last half, but is mostly seen sitting on the sidelines grabbing guys by the balls and tossing them into a trash truck. If she'd of gotten to make more guys "look like sick faggots", you'd be like "Black Belt who?"

Going back to Jim Kelly, he had a relatively brief career where he made movies even worse than BLACK BELT JONES, but not nearly as fun. These were films like GOLDEN NEEDLES (1974), a movie co-starring Joe Don Baker that made the equivalent of a buck in Hong Kong cinemas. There was also the Al Adamson film BLACK SAMURAI from 1977. If you're familiar with Adamson's work like SATAN'S SADISTS (1969), HORROR OF THE BLOOD MONSTERS (1970) and DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1971), than you know what to expect. 

Kelly also starred in the HK production, THE TATTOO CONNECTION (1978). He also starred in the plain out bizarre HOT POTATO (1976); which makes BLACK BELT JONES look like GONE WITH THE WIND by comparison. His best would arguably be THREE THE HARD WAY (1974), shared with both Fred Williamson and Jim Brown. The atrocious ONE DOWN, TWO TO GO (1982) was pretty much the death rattle for the genre and Kelly wasn't in it all that much and in TAKE A HARD RIDE (1974), he didn't say anything at all.

Kelly still retains a modest cult following to this day. He was also a real martial arts champion. Like some other real life fighters that had careers in cinema, that skill doesn't always translate so well onscreen. 

Despite the side-splitting potential of a lot of his movies, Kelly was instrumental in black performers being prominently featured in martial arts pictures from the early 70s onward. These include guys like Ron Van Clief, the 'Black Dragon' himself; and on with guys like Michael Jai White, Wesley Snipes, Billy Blanks, Bobby Samuels, and one of, if not the most all around talented black kung fu movie fighter of them all, Ron Hall.

Aside from Kelly and Hendry, the film is populated by a gallery of familiar, and welcome faces that help make the film a pleasure to endure. These include Alan Weeks (TRUCK TURNER), who plays Jones's close friend. If you recall, Weeks was Truck's partner who came to a terrible end in that iconic example of the blaxploitation genre. He fares better here, but has a slightly lesser part.

Scatman Crothers is Papa Byrd, the martial arts instructor of the school. If it's difficult to imagine Bowlegs from SANFORD AND SON as a Karate master, you're in for a treat. The Scatman gets down and funky dishin' out kicks and punches like only a badass senior citizen can do. It's quite a sight to behold. Yes, in BLACK BELT JONES, everybody is truly 'Kung Fu Fighting', but not everybody's kicks are fast as lightning, although it is a little bit frightening at times.


Earl Maynard (above at left; right in insert), another TRUCK TURNER alumni (incidentally, Oscar Williams also wrote BBJ and TRUCK TURNER as well), plays June Bug, one of Pinky's "treacherous nigga's". Maynard was a distinguished European actor, producer, director who also was a bodybuilding champion and professional wrestler. It's a shame he didn't act in more movies than he did, as Earl was a welcome face to everything he featured in. He was a hitman in TRUCK TURNER (1974), a fighting servant in MANDINGO (1975), a fighter in THE BIG BRAWL (1980) and a jovial pirate in THE SWORD & THE SORCERER (1982).

You'll also spy Ted Lange (Isaac from THE LOVE BOAT!) as a militant attempting to muscle in on Pinky, and Marla Gibbs (Florence from THE JEFFERSONS!) tending bar in a nightclub!

If it weren't for the cast, or Oscar Williams' lively script rife with memorably spicy dialog, it's doubtful BBJ would be as wacky as it is. It's difficult to tell if the finished product was supposed to be this funny or not. The score by Luchi DeJesus (who worked frequently in the genre) is strangely appealing even if a lot of it sounds like somebody farting into a microphone, or strangling a duck.

The character of Black Belt Jones would be beautifully parodied in the classic blaxploitation comedy tribute, I'M GONNA GIT YOU SUCKA (1988) in the role by the late Steve James. Only there, it was intentional, and was equally funny. As irrefutably silly as the whole thing is, BLACK BELT JONES is among the most well known, and fondly remembered titles in the black action canon. It holds a special place in the hearts of a lot of fans, and despite his participation in ENTER THE DRAGON, this is arguably the single most defining role in Jim Kelly's career.

This review is representative of the Warner Brothers 2 disc DVD including BLACK SAMSON, THREE THE HARD WAY and HOT POTATO.

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