The Human Tornado/Dolemite II: The Human Tornado (1976) -***½
Dolemite almost qualifies as a piece of outsider art, so far removed is it from ordinary notions of commercial feature filmmaking. The sequel, The Human Tornado, is another matter, however. Although still clumsy, amateurish, and strange, The Human Tornado seems to mark the point at which writer/producer/star Rudy Ray Moore got the hang of the medium. The story is more structured, the jokes are more apparent, the production values are more in line with what’s expected in a movie that people are meant to pay money to see. At the same time, though, The Human Tornado retains Dolemite’s audacity, and remains unmistakably rooted in Moore’s personal sense of humor. It’s a big improvement over its predecessor as an action film, too, and indeed it’s probably fair to say that The Human Tornado is approximately the Dolemite movie that Moore wanted to make in the first place.
Certainly The Human Tornado is clearer and more concise in establishing what we’re to make of Dolemite himself (Moore, in case that wasn’t already obvious). We see him onstage first, delivering his signature combination of risqué rap storytelling and profane insult comedy. Then we drop in on him at his hilltop mansion in some unnamed Deep South town, where he’s hosting a party to celebrate his donation of the house in question to the local black youth charity. (The movie never says so directly, but I gather we’re meant to intuit that Los Angeles got too hot for Dolemite after that unfortunate killing-the-mayor business last time around.) Alas, the guests dancing out on the patio are observed by a pair of rednecks who race off at once to alert Sheriff Beatty (J. B. Baron, from Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil’s Son-in-Law). Beatty is thrilled at the prospect of bustable rowdiness up at “that fancy nigger’s house;” indeed, I suspect he’s been dreaming of such an opportunity since the day Dolemite moved in. The sheriff and his deputies barge in with guns drawn, but at first they find no sign of their host. That’s because Dolemite’s in the bedroom. With Beatty’s wife (Sherice Sherman)— who is apparently paying him for the privilege. Yeah, that doesn’t go over very well. Beatty has one of his men shoot the faithless woman, but Dolemite escapes, leaping from the window and rolling down the hill clad only in a big, floppy hat. It’s so impressive that the film rightly shows it to us a second time immediately afterward, with “INSTANT REPLAY” flashing across the bottom of the screen. So you see what I mean, right? By the time Dolemite springs to his feet at the base of that hill, we’ve got as vivid a picture of him in our heads as the whole of the first film afforded.
Dolemite is picked up and hustled away by three of the guests at his party: the brothers Bo (Ernie Hudson, of Ghostbusters and Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone) and Jimmy (James Cromartie), and some guy named Doug (Ed Montgomery). He won’t get away that easily, however, because Beatty’s deputies are in hot pursuit. Losing them will require a high-speed chase down unpaved country roads and a shootout that leaves the fugitives with no car and no safe haven closer than Dolemite’s old home turf in Los Angeles. Luckily, they happen to pick exactly the right passing motorist to carjack, a jungle-fevered homosexual who always wanted to visit LA. A phone call to Dolemite’s longtime associate, Queen Bee (Lady Reed again), secures the men a place to hide out, and it looks like smooth sailing from there on out.
The trouble is, Queen Bee is in much less of a position to offer anyone sanctuary than she realizes when she takes Dolemite’s call. The nightclub from which she earns her living competes directly with one owned by a white mobster called Cavaletti (Herb Graham, from Truck Stop Women and The First Nudie Musical), whose East Coast backers are getting tired of the chronically disappointing returns on their investment. The only way Cavaletti can see to satisfy his associates is to shut Queen Bee down. While Dolemite is still trundling across the country with his eager hostage, Cavaletti’s men raid Queen Bee’s, smash the place up, and take some hostages of their own. If Queen Bee ever wants to see Java (drag performer Sir Lady Java) and TC (Peaches Jones, of Coffy and Foxy Brown) again, she’ll close up shop and come to work for Cavaletti, together with the mobster’s pick of her remaining girls.
That’s where things stand when Dolemite, Bo, Jimmy, and Doug arrive in LA: Queen Bee and Hurricane Annie (Deliver Us from Evil’s Gloria Delaney) in de facto bondage to Cavaletti, and Java and TC locked away in a secret torture dungeon run by an insane hag. And as if that weren’t bad enough, Beatty has traced Dolemite to Los Angeles, and he comes to the LAPD with a cock-and-bull story about how it was Dolemite who killed his wife. Captain Ryan (Jack Kelly, from She-Devil and Forbidden Planet) promises to put his best detective on the case, a man we remember from the last movie. Pete Blakely (a returning Jerry Jones) is not happy about the assignment, however, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, he’s on his way out the door to a much-deserved and long-awaited vacation when Ryan calls him into his office. For another, Blakely’s been building a case against Cavaletti, and he’s sure he’s close to nailing the bastard. Beatty’s vendetta is a distraction that couldn’t have come at a worse time. And most of all, Blakely knows Beatty’s type well enough to find his tale fishy in the extreme— especially since his own past experience with Dolemite has convinced him that the latter man is generally on the side of the angels, if not often on the side of the law. Blakely’s cooperation with Beatty is therefore noticeably less than complete, and he’s apt to drop his lackadaisical hunt for Dolemite altogether whenever a new tip in the Cavaletti case comes along.
Meanwhile, Dolemite and Queen Bee set to work on their own Cavaletti case. First, they call in international karate champion Howard Jackson (the man himself, who can also be seen in Deathrow Gameshow and The Magnificent Three) to sharpen their showgirls’ martial arts skills, and to impart some to Bo, Jimmy, Doug, and Queen Bee’s MC, Mr. Motion (Jimmy Lynch, later of Shaolin Dolemite and Avenging Disco Godfather). They can’t fight a war without an army, after all. Then Dolemite goes undercover to seduce Cavaletti’s mistress (Barbara Gerl), an unsatisfied nymphomaniac who secretly prefers her men the way she takes her coffee, if you know what I mean. Dolemite’s objective is to extract from her the location of the Torture Hag’s dungeon, so that he can rescue Java and TC and deprive Cavaletti of the leverage they give him. Then Dolemite will be free to initiate a cascade of successive mini-climaxes which collectively suggest that Moore and director Cliff Roquemore were paying closer attention to Hong Kong action movies than initially meets the eye.
Although Dolemite was my introduction to blaxploitation, it was The Human Tornado that convinced me I was going to get along with the genre in the long run. That’s a little odd, now that I think about it, because one of the ways in which this movie improves over its predecessor is that it’s much clearer about being an insider parody of blaxploitaion. I mean, how often do you get sucked into a genre by watching it make fun of itself? Regardless, bits like the instant replay of Dolemite’s leap-and-roll down the hill and the scene revealing that the title refers to his prowess at fucking rather than fighting are at once a lot funnier than Moore’s rhymed storytelling (which had been the main comedy delivery system in the first film) and more recognizable as deliberate attempts at humor. The same goes for the undercranked camera that simultaneously picks up the pace of the action scenes and renders them charmingly slapstick. We all know that a pimped-out 70’s Lincoln won’t take a turn like that, and that a man of Moore’s age and girth is unlikely to have a roundhouse kick that can’t be dodged at a spry mosey, so the flagrantly sped-up fights and car chases serve to invite us in on the gag.
The somewhat closer approximation of technical professionalism in The Human Tornado also makes it easier to appreciate Moore’s eccentricities as a filmmaker. (Although he never directed any of his own movies, and increasingly relied on Cliff Roquemore for the hands-on stuff behind the camera, it’s pretty clear that Moore himself was the prime mover behind most of the pictures he starred in during the 70’s.) The formlessness of Dolemite’s non-plot tended to monopolize one’s attention, making it hard to see sometimes what other merits— or even what other entertainment value— it possessed. Here, though, with a story that’s basically story-shaped and production that isn’t constantly kneecapping itself, it’s possible to see for the first time how truly weird Moore’s sensibilities are. Consider the fugue dream that comes over Cavaletti’s mistress as she inspects the erotic velvet paintings that Dolemite (posing as a foreign art dealer selling his wares door to door) uses to break the ice with her. Unselfconsciously fondling herself, the woman falls into a trance in which she imagines a parade of nude, handsomely-formed black men clambering one after another out of a chest marked “TOYS,” and then thronging the bed where she lies at the center of a minimalist, almost Brechtian stage set. Or alternately, look at the Torture Hag, with her outlandish silent movie villainess appearance and her ratty urban warehouse stocked with pain machines straight out of Bloody Pit of Horror. None of that is at all what you expect from a black action movie of the 70’s. Furthermore, that fantastical strain would become increasingly pronounced in Moore’s film work, at least when he was calling the shots. As we’ve already seen, Avenging Disco Godfather features both an exorcism subplot and an array of creepy-crude hallucination sequences, but the trend actually peaked two years before, with Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil’s Son-in-Law. Soul Vengeance and the handful of overt blaxploitation horror movies are just about the only other place to find anything really comparable, and it seems doubly remarkable that a guy who was first and foremost a standup comic would become so reliable a purveyor of such oddities.