Friday, 24 April 2009

Black Belt Jones

Title: Black Belt Jones
Director: Robert Clouse
Released: 1974
Staring: Jim Kelly, Gloria Hendry, Scatman Crothers, Eric Laneuville, Alan Weeks, Andre Philippe, Vincent Barbi, Malik Carter
Rating: 4 / 5

Plot: The Mafia wants to buy Papa Byrd’s (Crothers) downtown karate studio in an area planned for redevelopment. To help them they call in a favour from local crimeboss Pinky (Carter) and his thugs to help pressure Pop into selling, but accidentally kill him. Upon discovering this the karate students call the kung-fu expert, Black Belt Jones (Kelly) for help.

Review: “Enter the Dragon” (1973) was always going to be a hard film to follow up, especially considering it was one of Bruce Lee’s strongest movies, but it was hardly surprising that Clouse would try anyway, combing elements from the two main crazes at the time blaxploitation and Kung Fu, to create this film which was also intended to be a vehicle for Jim Kelly, who is probably best remembered as Williams in “Enter The Dragon” who was not only the second coolest character in that movie (after Bruce Lee of course) but also has the best lines, including my personal favourite “Man, you come right out of a comic book.” So it’s not surprising that Clouse choose to use Kelly as his new leading man, when it came to this film.
Right from the start we are treated to a reminder of Kelly’s martial arts skills, as Jones takes on a group of would be assassins, which sadly isn’t his best work, with a lot of the moves coming across sloppy and unintentionally humorous, but thankfully after this first shaky fight scene, the later fight sequences greatly improve with Kelly finding numerous occasions to use his skills in a variety of interesting settings, from train carriges to even a car wash and somthing will cover more later. What is important about this opening scene is that right away, we see that the character of Jones isn’t a hundred miles away from that of Williams, as Jones dresses similar to Williams and even has the trademark Afro and funk soundtrack, which kicks in whenever he enters into a fight with anyone, even when he’s having a playful and flirtatious sparing session with Sidney (Hendry). What is different though, is his fighting style which appears to have become more dirty since the last time we saw him in action, as Jones takes great delight in punching and kicking his opponents below the belt, but who can complain when he looks so effortlessly cool when doing it, he even refuses to run after one retreating bad guy, instead calmly walking over to one of his fallen enemies, picking up his gun and shooting the would be assassin in the ass.

The plot is nothing particularly groundbreaking, but for mindless fun like this film, it doesn’t overly matter much, other than to provide interesting filler between the next ass kicking, which Carter pretty much provides single handed as the crime boss Pinky, who also provides much of the films quotable dialogue, as he hides behind what seems to be an endless stream of hired heavies, who he brings in to help him take over the gym, which takes a record three attempts to achieve, which is surprising when it seems that Papa Byrd is clearly teaching from the book of “Hollywood Kung Fu” judging on how you see his students flailing their arms around randomly, during an early training scene, you would think that taking over this gym would be kind of easy, which apparently it’s not seeing how easily his men get beaten up during their first attempt, which most people would see as perhaps the time to stock up on firepower, or even a sharp stick for their next attempt, were the plan seems to be exactly the same as the first, only this time they are beaten by Jones and his friend, whose sole purpose in the fight is to turn the studio lights on and off and even when Pinky finally decides to use his gun, it’s only when the lights are off for some strange reason, still on the third attempt he has slightly more luck and then it’s only after he brings in a group of guys he refers to as his “Bogart Niggers”, a term it seems he’s created especially for these super tough fighters, judging how other characters have to ask him constantly what he means with this term.

Still Jones isn’t the only kung fu expert on hand, as it seems that Papa Byrd also taught his brand of martial arts to his daughter Sidney, played here by the foxy Gloria Hendry, who is probably best remembered for her bond girl role as Rosie Carver in “Live and Let Die” (1973) and here she kicks some seriously ass, especially during a scene, which after attending her fathers funeral, she stops off at Pinky’s pool hall, where she proceeds to beat the hell out of his henchmen, who no doubt at this point were wondering whether trying to take Papa Byrd’s studio was really worth the hassle, seeing how they’d already been beaten up on three separate occasions by this point. It’s just kind of a shame that we don’t get to see more of her in action later in this film, even during the final car wash showdown, were she is pretty much reduced to the role of sidekick, spending the fight throwing bad guys into the back of a garbage truck, while occasionally adding a kick or a punch of her own. Thankfully she’s not reduced to a complete bimbo, in the scenes she shares with Jones, as her character of Sidney, is fiercely independent and more than capable of looking after herself, which makes her a great addition to the list of strong willed women in Blaxploitation, which afterall is a genre much like Anime, renown for producing numorous strong female characters, such as “Coffy” (1973) and “Cleopatra Jones” (1973) who were played by fellow foxy ladies Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson, whose attitudes in those films, has since been given a more half assed copycat treatment by celebrities such as Beyonce Knowles who would even attempt her own ill-advised tribute of sorts in the third Austin Powers movie “Goldmember” (2002). Still seeing Hendry in action in this movie helps to vanquish such horrible memories.
The fight sequences are fairly varied, especially for a plot line which could have kept such sequences solely between Pinky’s pool hall and Papa Byrd’s studio, where it’s true the majority do take place, but thankfully director Clouse also features several other memorable fight sequences including Jones’s showdown with Pinky’s “Bogart Niggers”, in a train carriage in which it seems that he was also going for the world record for the largest number of bodies thrown through a window, during one single fight sequence, especially when it seems that this is Jones’s favourite way of dispatching of bad guys. We also have a decent fight scene at the Mafia bosses house, where Jones and Sidney along with Jones his all female team of gymnasts (one of who is bizarrely called Pickle) break into the compound to retrieve some photos that one of Jones Government contacts is keen to retrieve. Though I did have to ask the question as to why they choose to wear Ninja outfits in the daytime and even more so when the whole of the compound is painted white! I mean it’s hardly the world’s greatest disguise in those circumstances, yet for some strange reason appears to be highly effective, when it comes to evading the Don’s security. However the film does also have several horrible fight scenes, which ironically are the ones not to feature either Sidney or Jones in action, as we see the Students of Papa Byrd fighting Pinky's thugs, which at times almost verges on comical, including one scene in which one of the students spends the whole fight running around the studio like a headless chicken, while his friends fight off the thugs. Another memorable moment though would have to be the students encounter with Pinky's "Bogart Niggers" in which we not only see a student's head knocked through the ceiling, but also get to witness the amazing fighting ability of one of these thugs, which consists entirely of him bashing people with his belly!

Soundtrack wise it’s very funk heavy, which suited the film well, acting at times like Jones’s personal soundtrack, seeing how it’s often most noticeable when he is on the screen, while also unintentionally providing one of the more stranger moments of the film, during Jones and Sidney’s flirtatious sparing scene on the beach, were we see a guy playing the guitar almost in tune with the soundtrack, before Sidney takes the guitar and smashes it, before running off leaving us to look at the man, holding his now smashed guitar, when he before just minding his business, hanging out on the beach, playing his guitar on what was probably his one day off that week, until some crazy chick comes and smashes it…..but hey no doubt this probably me just reading to much into such a throw away scene.

“Black Belt Jones” is far from high art, with it’s Grindhouse style of Kung Fu, Blaxploitation characterisation and stereotypical Italian characters such as Big Tuna (Barbi), who speaks with an exaggerated accent, while shouting “Mama Mia” whenever given the chance, but this only really adds to the mindless fun, which is how a film like this should be viewed, with an open mind and a carefree attitude. It would later spawn a sequel “Hot Potato” (1976), which is not to be confused with “Black Belt Jones 2: The Tattoo Connection” which was released under the Black Belt Jones banner, solely because of Jim Kelly playing the lead, despite the fact it had nothing to do with Black belt Jones whatsoever. Still if you liked Jim Kelly in “Enter the Dragon” you will no doubt dig him in this as well.


  1. Nice! in a funny connection, I nearly picked up the soundtrack to this one last night on a whim. Must check this out.

  2. It's definatly a fun film and you can find it on Youtube at the moment. Tempted to hunt down the soundtrack for myself now I know it's available.


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