Black Belt Jones (1974) -***
A martial-arts sideline had begun to creep into blaxploitation at least as early as 1973— witness the totally pointless battle against the Asian heroin ring in Hell Up in Harlem or Tamara Dobson kung fu-ing her way through Shelly Winters’s minions via the magic of judicious editing in Cleopatra Jones— but it wasn’t until 1974 that a dedicated effort was made to wed the afro to the dojo. This is probably because real-life chopsocky bad-asses of African extraction didn’t exactly grow on trees in the early 70’s. There was, however, one such man who simply demanded to be noticed, a former international karate champion by the name of Jim Kelly. When Kelly was cast to appear alongside Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, it came to the world’s attention that he could halfway act in addition to being able to kick a man’s face into next week, and the rest of the decade saw Kelly employed fairly steadily in a string of blaxploitation action films. Alas, the one chance he ever got to play the lead in a movie that people actually saw came in his very first post-Enter the Dragon outing, the deliriously, endearingly screwy Black Belt Jones.
We begin with a group of generic Italian B-movie gangsters showing up at the winery whereby notorious mafioso Don Stefano (Andre Philippe, from Invasion of the Bee Girls) launders his mob’s money. For some unexplained reason, Stefano also uses one of his wine vats as the hiding place for a substantial quantity of that money, together with a set of photographs which we never do get to see. We may assume, however, that their dissemination would prove highly embarrassing for one or more people who would have much to lose from being embarrassed. In any case, the don’s visitors have come both to contribute a bit more cash to the stash, and to have a look at the photographs. One of them is also an undercover agent for some unidentified law-enforcement organization, and Stefano is on to him; the agent is promptly executed and his body locked away in one of the vats. (“Price this one down to $1.99 a bottle— he shit his pants before he died.”) The dead man’s boss hears the beginning of the end over the wire concealed in the agent’s watch, and he has but one thing to say in response: “Damn! Get me Black Belt!”
That would be Black Belt Jones (Kelly, who went on to lend his ass-whooping talents to Three the Hard Way and Black Samurai)— and yes, pretty much everybody he knows does habitually refer to him as “Black Belt,” or even just “Belt.” For reasons which will no more be explained than the content of the photographs, the identity of the outfit for which the good guys work, or really just about anything else in this movie you could care to name, Jones is sitting in the studio audience of what must surely be the dullest program on television, a talking-head interview series focusing on Latin American ambassadors. Jones gets the message that he’s wanted just in time to be forced to fight off a gang of assassins who were probably sent to take out the present episode’s guest star— at least, that’s what I’m guessing, since the armed thugs all look like the guys the homeowners’ association employs to cut the grass in my neighborhood. Why they decide to go after Jones instead of the visiting dignitary is a mystery for greater minds than mine to solve; all I can tell you is that our hero makes optimum use of this opportunity to establish his ass-kicking bona fides. When that’s over with, Jones checks in with the boss, hears all about the mafia vineyard, and refuses to take the assignment, even for $100,000. Which, I suppose, brings us one step closer to figuring out what’s going on here by establishing that whatever else they may be, Jones and the white guy in the office at least aren’t regular cops.
But we all know Black Belt Jones is going to have to take on Don Stefano in the end, now don’t we? It happens that Stefano has ties to the Los Angeles municipal government, and that he is heavily invested in plans to build a swank new civic center. In Watts. ‘Cause, hey— when you feel like taking in some highbrow entertainment or shopping for luxury goods, there’s no better place to do it than a down-and-out neighborhood famous the world over for its race riots and police brutality. Be that as it may, Stefano and his crooked buddies have one major impediment standing between them and their coveted civic center: the karate dojo owned and operated by Papa Byrd (Scatman Crothers, from Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off and The Shining), who— go figure— happens to be Black Belt’s mentor. Luckily for the mob, Byrd likes to gamble, and he’s currently in hock to a small-time black crime boss named Pinky (Malik Carter, of Black Sister’s Revenge) to the tune of $1000. Pinky, in turn, owes Stefano a cool quarter-million, and the don has his subordinate, Emilio Tunasalli (Vincent Barbi, from Dolemite and The Astro-Zombies)— aka “Big Tuna”— lean on Pinky to get Byrd out of the way. Now a paltry little one-grand debt might not seem like a very effective instrument for levering Byrd’s dojo out from under him, but Pinky doesn’t let that stop him. In one of the movie’s funniest running gags, he simply adds arbitrary amounts of “interest” to the debt by adding pen-strokes to the figure written on Byrd’s old IOU— $1000 becomes $4000, which becomes $14,000, and so on. Pinky also makes a habit of sending his goons around to the dojo to make trouble, but all that gets him is a bunch of incapacitated minions. Papa, Toppy (Alan Weeks, of Truck Turner and Shaft), Quincy (The Omega Man’s Eric Laneuville), and the gang are rough enough customers in their own right, but when Black Belt Jones comes by for a visit, Pinky’s thugs are so drastically outclassed that you almost have to feel sorry for them. Pinky has to import more muscle from out of town (I’ve got to say, Harvard Blue’s “insurance company” was a lot more intimidating), but his efforts to back his claim with violence backfire rather spectacularly. Pinky orders his new bully-boys to rough Byrd up, but they accidentally kill the old man while they’re at it. Any remotely enforceable lien on the dojo building dies with Byrd unless Pinky can somehow figure out who the “Sydney” to whom Byrd apparently willed the property might be.
Sydney turns out to be Byrd’s estranged daughter (Gloria Hendry, from Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem). She flies out to Watts in response to word of the old man’s death, and almost immediately brings herself to Pinky’s attention. Of course, since she does so by kung fu-ing the shit out of yet another bunch of Pinky’s men, her arrival on the scene is rather a double-edged sword for the mob. Then when Pinky tries to gain the upper hand by ransoming Quincy, he brings the wrath of Black Belt Jones and his private army of karate-trained, trampoline-bouncing, white bikini girls (no, really) down upon his head as well. Hostilities escalate rapidly until Jones and Sydney end up squaring off against seemingly every mobster in Watts in a sud-soaked carwash (well, technically it’s a garbage truck wash)— in their underwear, mind you— and coming out effortlessly ahead. Black Belt’s law-enforcement contact arrives on the scene just in time to take possession of the garbage truck packed full of vanquished thugs after the hard work has already been done.
Considering that director Robert Clouse is best remembered for helming Enter the Dragon, and that Black Belt Jones was conceived as a star-making vehicle for one of that movie’s supporting players, I find it very interesting that the resulting film came out resembling not so much Enter the Dragon as Clouse’s later and much more coolly received The Big Brawl. Like The Big Brawl, Black Belt Jones has a loopy tongue-in-cheek quality that is conspicuously absent from most of Enter the Dragon, and plays the majority of its fight scenes as much for slapstick comedic effect as for the more conventional action-movie adrenalin rush. The screenplay is full of obvious absurdities, and yet no one involved in the film’s creation seems to have been overly troubled by any of them. Jim Kelly’s in-fight vocalizations, though plainly meant to suggest Bruce Lee’s trademark howl, actually sound more like Curly Howard’s equally distinctive “Woo-woo-woo-woo-woo.” The villains are cartoony enough that they wouldn’t seem out of place in an outright comedy, the Trampoline Harem’s raid on Stefano’s headquarters feels like something Andy Sidaris would have thought up (although Clouse thankfully doesn’t direct the sequence at all the way Sidaris would), and the climactic fight scene needs only a bit more use of weaponry improvised from the surrounding scenery to fit snugly into one of Jackie Chan’s American-made movies. The film frequently becomes much too silly for its own good, but it’s during those ill-advised moments (like the seemingly endless and totally unexplained battle against the Latin American assassins or the numerous scenes of caricatured Italian mobsters shoveling pasta down their throats while discussing their nefarious business) that Black Belt Jones is at its most entertaining.
The fight scenes are sort of a mixed bag. To begin with, they resolutely follow the inherently limiting “martial arts master vs. a bunch of untrained mooks” formula of which American fu-film directors are so inexplicably enamored. Luckily, there’s a fair amount of genuine skill on display here. Jim Kelly has the grace and the speed to make all but the most blatantly counterproductive flourishes of combat acrobatics look viable, and most of the extras playing Papa Byrd’s students put in respectable showings for themselves. Gloria Hendry, on the other hand, is wonderfully awful, and it’s easy to see why Clouse relegated her to mop-up duty during the carwash fight— the need to give Kelly a wide enough frame to show off his moves would have precluded the editing trickery that managed to make Hendry look merely incompetent in her big solo fight scene earlier. The biggest hoot, however, might be Scatman Crothers, who tries gamely to put himself across as the bad-ass he’s supposed to be when Byrd charges out of his office to help repel Pinky’s first attack on the dojo; he even manages not to look like a total ass while wearing a toupee that, to all appearances, must have been molded out of shellac. There aren’t a lot of guys in the world who can do that, you know?