Saturday, September 10, 2011

Basic Black: "Black Belt Jones" (1974)

Director Robert Clouse, notable for helming one of Bruce Lee's films and tons of TV and straight to video martial arts epics, shows a lighter touch on this blaxploitation actioner.

Jim Kelly plays Black Belt Jones, a man whose martial arts prowess is as wide reaching as his afro. Los Angeles is trying to build a new civic center, and the mafia is buying all the land where it will be built so they can bilk the city government. The lone holdout is a karate school owned by Pop (Scatman Crothers). The mafia and second in command Big Tuna (Vincent Barbi) lean on loan shark hood Pinky (Malik Carter) to lean on Pop in turn. Pinky starts flashing a phony IOU around, trying to get Pop's property for payment. Pinky accidentally kills Pop, so Pop's daughter Sydney (a very lovely Gloria Hendry) inherits the place. Soon, Black Belt Jones makes like the Man With No Name, playing the mafia off of Pinky's gang, and playing with Sydney on the side. Sydney is no delicate flower, able to kick afro with the best of them. The action packed climax takes place in a car wash run amok, and that is only one weird aspect of this film.

All the blacks in the film call each other "nigger," which had me on edge throughout. Twice, Sydney uses the word "faggot," and it was not as a term of endearment. Italians do not come off much better, eating spaghetti and talking with New Yawk accents (in Southern California).

I enjoyed the film more when I watched it as a relic of the mid-1970's. Clouse and the cast do not take things too seriously, so the audience should not either. Jim Kelly is an adequate hero, Hendry is hot and holds her own, and when was the last time you saw Scatman Crothers involved in a martial arts action piece? The supporting cast is full of recognizable faces: Isaac from "The Love Boat" (spewing a line of obscenities he never repeated to Gopher), Flo from "The Jeffersons" gets stuffed in a walk-in cooler, and that dude with the big arms from the Michael Jackson/Paul McCartney video "Say Say Say" kicks butt.

Jones is called "Black Belt," apparently it is not a nickname. One winery heist sequence involves trampoline skills! All the character names are funny enough without trying to keep track of them. Tongues are in cheek, from Pinky's wet meeting with head of the mafia, to a car chase involving thrown panties.

For blaxploitation, however, the film is definitely lacking in nudity and sexual content. A nude white couple running away from a fight between Sydney and Black Belt does not constitute anything remotely sexy. Too much of the dialogue and sound effects are dubbed, and not well. The lip synch is way off. The fight scenes are good, but they eventually bore, since there are so many of them.

"Black Belt Jones" is average stuff, but I have seen worse blaxploitation, and better. This falls right in the middle, but I will slightly recommend it, especially to action fans. (* * *) out of five stars.