Slaughter (1972) ***
When blaxploitation was invented at the turn of the 1970’s, there was simply no way in hell that American International Pictures, the nation’s foremost schlock-peddlers for nearly twenty years, were going to stay out of the game for long. One of that studio’s first forays into the new genre was this transparent ripoff of the previous year’s very successful Shaft. AIP did ripoffs better than anyone, though, and Slaughter carries on the tradition.
Our hero, Slaughter (Jim Brown, from Black Gunn and Three the Hard Way), is a former Green Beret captain— presumably also a Vietnam vet— whose father just happens to be a big-time mobster. The movie begins with Papa Slaughter’s death by exploding car, a sabotage-attack clearly set up by one of his old business rivals. The audience’s first look at Slaughter comes when he arrives at the hospital in response to the news. Fighting his way past a nosy reporter by the name of Kim (Marlene Clark, of The Beast Must Die and Night of the Cobra Woman), Slaughter learns from a doctor that it proved impossible to save his father, and he leaves the hospital burning for revenge.
The problem is, he doesn’t know whom he should be burning for revenge against. To find out, Slaughter pays a visit to a girlfriend of his dad’s, just in time to see her gunned down by persons unknown. With her dying breath, the woman tells Slaughter that a man named Rinaldi was responsible for the killings, and that he will be catching a private plane to South America that night. Slaughter then heads back to his apartment to plan his ambush of Rinaldi, and when he does, he finds Kim there waiting for him— stark naked, mind you— in the bathroom. Seems the girl is no reporter after all, but just wants to get into Slaughter’s pants. It’s still suspicious, though— Kim’s already demonstrated that she somehow knew both Slaughter’s name and his military background, details that a reporter might plausibly know, but which would tend to paint a private citizen as either an obsessed stalker or an agent of this Rinaldi character. Slaughter does the smart thing, and tosses Kim out on her naked ass, then gets to work on his scheme of vengeance.
When Rinaldi appears at the airport that night, the plane isn’t the only thing waiting for him. Slaughter’s there too, armed to the teeth and out for blood. He shoots down one of Rinaldi’s bodyguards, and then engages the taxiing plane in a high-speed motor-vehicle chase, which ends when a sideswipe from Slaughter’s Dodge Dart sheers off one of the plane’s landing gears. Rinaldi himself is killed in the resulting explosion of the aircraft. By this time, however, the isolated runway is swarming with police cruisers, and Slaughter gets picked up along with the surviving mobsters.
But oddly enough, this is no ordinary arrest. The man the police take Slaughter to see is a high-ranking officer of the U.S. Treasury, a certain A. W. Price (Cameron Mitchell, from Knives of the Avenger and The Swarm). As Price explains, Slaughter pretty much ruined a stakeout his agency had been working on for months. Rinaldi, it seems, was a miserable little nobody, a small-time mobster in the employ of a much bigger fish named Hoffo (Rip Torn, who went on to appear in Coma and The Beastmaster). Hoffo, in turn, works for Mario Felice (Norman Alfe), for whom he is overseeing the computerization of the mob’s business activities. If Price could get his hands on the data from Hoffo and Felice’s computer, he’d have everything he needed to put Felice’s mob out of business for good. Slaughter’s attack on Rinaldi put paid to that plan by destroying all the evidence that might have led Price to Felice, and Price therefore figures Slaughter owes him something. Using the fact that vigilantism is, in fact, against the law as a lever, Price gets Slaughter to “volunteer” to help him crack the case. He will fly to South America, where he will meet up with two of Price’s agents, a man named Harry (Don Gordon, of The Beast Within and The Mack) and (surprise, surprise) Kim from the hospital. With their help, he will figure out where Felice is hiding his computer and send word back to Price so that the operation can be shut down. And while he’s at it, Slaughter will be perfectly placed to exact his revenge against the men who put out the hit on his father.
It doesn’t take Slaughter very long to find the private casino run by Felice’s mob, and he puts in an appearance there one night with Harry in tow. The idea is for Slaughter to muscle his way into the place, make his presence in town felt, and generally draw the attention of as many gangsters as he can so that Harry can have a free hand to search the casino building for any sign of the computer. The mission comes up bust as far as its real purpose is concerned, but it does bring to light the potentially useful piece of information that Hoffo and Felice are rivals, the younger man hoping to maneuver himself into a position from which he can usurp Felice’s leadership. It also serves to introduce Slaughter to Hoffo’s girlfriend, Ann (Stella Stevens, from The Manitou and Chained Heat), a development that is absolutely fraught with potential ramifications. Ann is obviously more than a little attracted to Slaughter, which makes the violence-prone and virulently racist Hoffo mad enough to shit napalm. It also gives Felice a way to get to Slaughter; if Ann were to become the freelance agent’s mistress, the mob would be able to find out exactly what he was up to. Despite Hoffo’s strenuous objections, Felice orders Ann to get close to Slaughter, a mission which she accepts with visible relish.
Of course, anybody who’s seen more than one of these movies in his life already knows exactly why Felice’s plan isn’t going to work. There’s just no way Ann isn’t going to fall in love with Slaughter and turn on the mob. Hoffo stupidly accelerates this process by ordering a series of hits on Slaughter out of homicidal jealousy. Meanwhile, he and Felice are busily working to out-maneuver each other for control of the mob’s operations. Eventually, Hoffo’s brute violence triumphs over Felice’s guile, suggesting that the game will soon be up for Slaughter as well. But Slaughter has been doing his job well, and has kept his partners apprised of the situation. When Hoffo makes his move against Slaughter, inviting him on false pretenses to a party at the casino, Harry, Kim, Price, and several dozen of his men are on hand to back Slaughter up, to say nothing of the ace in the hole he has in the form of Ann. Price gets his bust, and Slaughter gets his revenge, as Hoffo dies in the fireball that ends the last of the movie’s many car chases.
Okay, so obviously no one’s going around calling Slaughter a classic, and I’m not either, but it’s still a damn lot of fun. Jim Brown became a pretty big star on the blaxploitation scene on the strength of this movie, and it isn’t hard to see why. He comes off as something of a cartoon in comparison to, say, Richard Roundtree or Fred Williamson, but he’s got presence, and presence is arguably the most important quality of a blaxploitation action hero. The action doesn’t quite deliver the thrills of AIP’s later Truck Turner, and Slaughter lacks the kung fu angle that would later become a defining characteristic of its subgenre, but it also avoids the commonly encountered pitfall of allowing its momentum to fizzle between shoot-outs or chase scenes. You’d probably still be better served by any Pam Grier movie you could care to name, but Slaughter is certainly worth a look.