When Enter the Dragon came out in 1973, it cemented Bruce Lee’s status as a superstar, of course, but it also introduced audiences to another charismatic young martial arts performer – Jim Kelly. With his awesome Afro, lean, athletic build, urban cool and a unique and dynamic fighting style, Kelly was a standout supporting presence and it’s no surprise that Dragon producer Fred Weintraub would try to capitalize on it. It was the tail end of the blaxploitation movement and the time was rife for a badass black karate star.
It’s just too bad that Hollywood couldn’t come up with a decent star vehicle for him.
Was it that Kelly only really worked well as part of an ensemble, a team of heroes? He, John Saxon and Lee meshed perfectly in Dragon. Without the burden of carrying the movie, Kelly was allowed to shine. Maybe he just wasn’t leading man star material. Personally, I think he could have been up there, if not with the likes of Jim Brown, then at least with Fred Williamson and Richard Roundtree…if only someone had bothered to construct the kind of movie that played to his strengths.
Coming hot on the heels of Dragon, Black Belt Jones - on paper at least - seems just the ticket. Mixing Kelly’s karate skills with an urban gangster plot seems like a no-brainer. There’s nothing wrong with the premise: mafia boss Steffano has been buying big chunks of inner city L.A. property in anticipation of making a killing when a planned construction project is completed. The only thing in his way is a tatty old building used as a karate school, owned by Pop (Scatman Crothers). The Don exerts pressure on local drug kingpin Pinky (Malik Carter) to get the deed on the building. When Pinky’s men accidentally kill Pop, Black Belt Jones (Kelly) steps in. Pop was Jones' mentor, and together with the help of Pop’s estranged daughter Sydney (Live and Let Die’s Gloria Hendry), herself adept in karate, he decides to take down not only Pinky and his crew, but Don Steffano's outfit as well.
The stage seems set for some blistering martial arts mayhem, and while we do get some good fights, the overall result is a let down.
One of the main problems is that, while most blaxploitation pictures embraced the newfound freedoms of the MPAA and were chock full of gratuitous nudity, sex, and extreme violence, Black Belt Jones is a pretty tame affair. Very little skin (just a fleeting, comic butt shot), and only a couple of bloodless deaths. Instead we get lots of comic strip action, including a final brawl in a sudsed-up car wash (admittedly a rather original setting, let down by some awkward comedy of Hendry throwing dazed baddies into a garbage truck).
This tameness isn’t a deal breaker in and of itself. Where the film falters, aside from its general air of sloppiness and lame dialogue, is in its lack of a worthy opponent for Kelly to face off against. As fans of martial arts movies know, part of the indestructible formula of the best the genre has to offer is the big climactic showdown. Whether it’s Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris in the famed Colosseum smack-down in Return of the Dragon, or Jackie Chan vs. Benny the Jet Urquidez in Wheels on Meals and Dragons Forever, or Jet Li vs. Billy Chow in Fist of Legend – virtually all of the best kung fu flicks feature someone on the bad guys’ side who possesses the kind of commensurate skill against which our hero can test his mettle. Black Belt Jones is sadly lacking in the memorable villain department.
That said, taken in the right frame of mind, it’s a fun enough time waster. Kelly doesn’t pop on screen like Bruce Lee (but then, who does?) but he’s still got more than his fair share of cool, and he’s still pretty dynamite in the Robert Wall-choreographed fight scenes. He's extraordinarily fit, and his blocks, punches and chops are really fast and impressively powerful, complete with his signature "ooop," "aaap," and "eeooww" battle howls.
While his sexual prowess and magnetism seemed obvious in Enter the Dragon, in his own films Kelly seems strangely chaste. A brief interlude with Kelly and Hendry roughhousing on the beach near the end of Jones feels tacked on and phony. And he has no real standout lines here, as he did in Dragon (“Man, you’re straight out of a comic book.”), or any scene as fun and well-played as his back-and-forth gambling bits with John Saxon during their tournament fights on Han's Island.
Kelly only really seems to come fully alive in the fight scenes, which are reasonably exciting and occasionally inventive, but could have really used that extra bone-crunching, Shaw Bros. touch.
Basically, I wanted some exploitation in my blaxploitation, thank you very much. In the end, it all seems pretty juvenile and silly (I mean, come on - Scatman Crothers as a karate master!?) On the plus side, it’s not boring, has plenty of good action and has a ridiculously catchy, funky main title theme (listen to it here), which enlivens the fun, freeze-frame opening titles as well as the climactic car wash fight.
Black Belt Jones is a model of restraint in comparison to its loose sequel, Hot Potato. While in some ways the sequel is more imaginative and fun, it’s also really, really, REALLY goofy and insipid. All pretense of blaxploitation has gone out the window – hell, all pretense of sanity, realism and suspense as well. Hot Potato is like a 10-year-old’s candy-colored fever dream, full of noise and color but constructed of arbitrary elements and, in the end, completely absurd.
Just called "Jones" this time out (not "B.B."), Kelly has now turned into some sort of globe-trotting government agent. Dispatched to one of those made-up Asian countries so common in older Hollywood films (but which is clearly Thailand), Jones and his two buddies, Johnny Chicago (Geoffrey Binney) and Leonardo Pizzarella a.k.a. White Rhino (George Memmoli) team up with local police sergeant Pam (Irene Tsu). Their mission: to rescue a senator’s daughter (Judith Brown) kidnapped by the evil, aphorism-spouting master criminal, Carter Rangoon (Sam Hiona). Rangoon is holding the girl to force the senator into quashing a foreign aid bill. His cunning plan to trick Jones and co. is to substitute a former prostitute/petty thief lookalike, Leslie (also Brown) for the actual captive. And for the majority of the movie, this plan works very well.
Johnny Chicago and Rhino needle each other and generally futz around like a couple of obnoxious schoolboys, while Pam scowls owlishly and Jones maintains a Zen-like state until his next fight scene rolls around, as they make their lackadaisical way through the jungle to safety.
Things get decidedly wacky real quick. We first meet Rhino in a bordello, engaged in a gross-out eating contest with an equally large Thai lady. Rhino then proceeds to use a wind-up mini patrol car to distract the guards watching over the “fake” senator’s daughter, as the others charge through stone walls on the backs of elephants.
Later, learning that Leslie has stolen some incriminating papers from him, Rangoon uses his influence over local tribes to send a small army in pursuit of our merry band. For no apparent reason, the first batch of killers is dressed in some sort of court jester outfit. They drop down on our heroes as they’re rafting down river. Another mostly ridiculous fight occurs, followed by an inexplicable interlude in a hill tribe village, where Rhino manages to win himself a wife and child.
Then we have an extended bit where everyone has a little PG-rated love-in. Johnny Chicago has apparently (in a series of events deemed not important enough to show the audience) fallen for the imposter, Leslie, and they get busy in the bushes, while Rhino plays house with his new family and Jones and Pam childishly splash and throw each other around in a waterfall pool.
Then we get another attack, this time by a group of leopard skin wearing warriors. Jones and the team fight back with a jerry-rigged wheel that shoots off bottle rockets, a kite that drops smoke grenades, and some more hand-to-hand combat.
By now, the group have realized that the real senator’s daughter is still a prisoner back at Rangoon’s jungle palace, and launch a final all-out assault. We conclude with the credits rolling on a montage of what is almost touchingly believed to be our “favorite scenes” from the film.
As I watched this masterpiece of bad cinema unfold with slack jaw and wide eyes, a part of me (a tiny part, admittedly) admired the sheer audacity of its stupidity. Gone is any trace of an attempt at making a straight-up action thriller. Instead we get lots of labored comedy, so-so action scenes, confused depictions of ethnic cultures and, once again, no strong opponent for Kelly to face off with. The so-called comic antics of Memmoli as Rhino are wince-inducing and take up far, far too much screen time. Geoffrey Binney has some chemistry as Johnny Chicago but ultimately his character doesn’t register much, and he's only a marginally convincing fighter. Irene Tsu is pretty but severe, and looks in dire need of a cheeseburger or two. She gives a wildly erratic performance, veering between hard bitch queen one moment and gooey-eyed innocent the next, often in the same scene. She probably doesn’t deserve the blame nearly as much as director and screenwriter Oscar Williams (who also wrote Black Belt Jones).
Kelly is the still center of all this chaos, and seems bemused and bored in equal measure. The credits read “Jim Kelly's fight sequences choreographed by himself,” but they’re nothing to boast about this time out. There’s one setpiece that is nicely conceived at least, as Jones wanders through a temple where the many statues surrounding him prove to be enemies who leap to the attack, but this quickly devolves into a bloodless sword battle. Too much of the action seems uninspired, and, even worse, is often accompanied by embarrassing cartoon sound effects.
If Hot Potato seems written and conceived by a 10 year old, 10-year- olds and the young-at-heart will probably still enjoy it. It does have one saving grace, though: its often stunning locations. Filmed nearly entirely outdoors in Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand, it features scads of locals as extras, lending it a lot of local color.
If taken as a sort of genial travelogue, it’s not half bad. As an action comedy, it’s unredeemably silly but, again, never boring. Still, it falls far short of the sort of "Bond-meets-chopsocky" approach it was trying for (there’s even a decided Bondian element to the score, which is also pretty catchy in its own right). If better conceived and handled as a serious martial arts thriller, with actual skilled fighters cast as members of Jones' team, a worthy adversary, and enough exploitable elements, it might have worked a treat. As it is, it’s more suited to a drunken “bad movie” party with a group of friends.
Despite my slagging them off, I have to say I was truly entertained and amused by both of these films. Black Belt Jones is worth seeing for the opening titles alone. That outstanding, funky theme tune is still running through my head as I type. And Hot Potato literally has to be seen to be believed. There are far stranger and shoddier films out there, but with this kind of watered down product representing him, it's no wonder that Kelly never reached his full star potential.
Kelly’s movie career petered out after a few more films, such as The Tattoo Connection (1977), Black Samurai (1978) and One Down, Two to Go (1982). A superb athlete, he became a tennis pro in the mid-70s and was still active as a tennis coach until his death from cancer in 2013. It’s a shame his singular presence wasn’t better utilized, but he’ll always be remembered fondly by fans of 70s action cinema, at the very least thanks to the enduring image of karate cool he set in Enter the Dragon.
DVD Note: Both Black Belt Jones and Hot Potato come ready-made for a double feature night, on disc one of Warner Bros.' 2-disc Four Film Favorites: Urban Action Collection (which also contains Black Sampson and Three the Hard Way). Both films look very good, with the more recent Hot Potato especially clear and colorful.
This post is my contribution to the Camp and Cult Blogathon, being hosted from September 17th - 28th by the very welcoming and talented Stacia at She Blogged by Night. Please go here for the list of all the other fine blogs participating in this event. Lots of fun stuff linked there!
Opinionated ramblings about new and old movies (mostly old, as that's the way I like 'em!)
Blogs of Note
Stuart Galbraith IV's World Cinema Paradise
Movie Morlocks (TCM's Classic Movie Blog)
50 Westerns from the 50s
Riding the High Country
Tipping My Fedora
Thrilling Days of Yesteryear
Laura's Miscellaneous Musings
Classic TV and Film Cafe
Just a Cineast
She Blogged By Night
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Out of the Past -
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In So Many Words...
Greenbriar Picture Shows
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Another Old Movie Blog
Lasso the Movies
Kevin's Movie Corner
Films From Beyond the Time Barrier
Carole & Co.
Rupert Pupkin Speaks
Vienna's Classic Hollywood
The Lady Eve's Reel Life
ClassicBecky's Brain Food
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