Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Film Appreciation - Batman, Motherf---er!

Film Appreciation gets clobbered as Cody Hamman writes about the 1974 action film Black Belt Jones.

Martial artist Jim Kelly, sporting an awesome afro, stars as the titular character, and it's never implied that Black Belt Jones is anything other than the name he was given at birth. People call him Black Belt, he introduces himself as such, friends occasionally shorten it to Belt or BB. He's a badass-for-hire, but when a non-specific law enforcement agency offers him $100,000 to infiltrate the winery of mobster Don Steffano to retrieve some mysterious photographs, he turns the job down. The agency has already lost three men trying to get those pictures, it's a suicide mission... But Black Belt won't be able to avoid Don Steffano for long.

The city is planning to build a civic center which will take up eight blocks and Don Steffano wants a piece of the impending land buyout. He intends to take over the property that's right in the center of the eight blocks, which just happens to be the Black Byrd Karate School, a place close to Black Belt's heart. Steffano sends his man Big Tuna out to make this takeover happen, and Tuna recruits neighborhood dope supplier Pinky to handle the job of bullying the Black Byrd property owner out of their land.

Pinky's target is Black Byrd head Wesley "Papa" Byrd. When Pinky first visits the karate school, Papa and the students make quick work of him and his goons. The school's teacher Toppy calls Black Belt in to help with the situation, and when Pinky and goons return after dark, Belt uses the darkness and Toppy turning the lights on and off every three seconds to his disorienting advantage. Pinky yells "Who hit me?" and Black Belt replies from the shadows, "Batman, motherf---er!" The bad guys get their asses handed to them again.

When Pinky and company corner Papa Byrd in a backroom poker den, we run into my one problem with this film - with just a couple hits from a lackey in a pink shirt, Papa Byrd has been accidentally punched to death. Papa Byrd is played by Scatman Crothers wearing a nightmare toupee. In the first confrontation at the karate school, he drops the one liners "I got Super Fly!" and "Who else wants to sing soprano?" while karate chopping and nut-kicking a fellow called Jelly, who is played by Earl Jolly Brown, the man who portrayed Kananga's henchman Whisper in the 1973 James Bond film Live and Let Die. Papa's known for gambling and ho chasing, and when he walks down the street he playfully knocks the arm off a trashed mannequin and slaps a woman's ass. This shining light is snuffed out with a death unworthy of the character.

But dead he is, and after a funeral where the students do some karate moves beside his casket, Papa Byrd's daughter Sydney shows up for the graveside service. Played by Gloria Hendry, who was Bond girl Rosie Carver in Live and Let Die, Sydney is the true owner of the karate school and is one hardcore tough chick who's looking to avenge her father's death. She is given some hellacious lines to speak, including one of the most insanely non-PC threats I've ever heard.

Pinky returns to the karate school with a tougher crew and they deliver to the students a harder beating than any Pinky's guys had taken previously, then kidnap a kid named Quincy, cementing both Black Belt's decision to fully commit to taking down the mobsters and his alliance/shaky romance with Sydney.

Much more action and ass kickings follow. There's a great sequence where Black Belt recruits the young girls who trampoline on the beach in front of his house all day, one of whom is named Pickles, into his own little gymnast army. After a quick training montage, he leads them on a Mission: Impossible-esque raid of Don Steffano's winery, paying these amateurs $5000 a piece to help him pull off the job that he earlier called a suicide mission and refused to do for $100,000.

I spent a lot of space laying out the plot, but it's really largely irrelevant to the enjoyment of the film. The first time I watched the movie, I was barely paying attention to the story, The fun comes from the goofy tone, characters, scenarios, and dialogue, and of course the fight scenes, where almost every hit sounds like a firecracker going off. There's the sight that Pinky's version of a mobile phone is just a regular rotary phone that he carries around and has Jelly climb a telephone pole and tap into the landline whenever he wants to make a call, the sequence that features the destruction of many windows (including one guy's ten second slow motion flight into one), the way that Black Belt courts Sydney, and the fact that everything builds up to a climax that involves a parked garbage truck and a flood of car wash soap suds. Of course it does, I'm sure you all saw that coming. It's truly a ridiculous film, but it's awesome in its ridiculousness.

I've actually only seen this movie twice, but the first viewing alone was enough for it to earn an Appreciation article. I had known about Black Belt Jones for years, it was always something that I intended to watch, but it was hard to find. When I saw that it was available to stream on Netflix, I added it to my Instant Queue, but never got around to watching it. As with H.O.T.S. last month, I have the guys at Cheese Magnet to thank for finally getting me around to watching it. They had a live tweet event for the film on Friday the 17th of this month, so I got to watch BBJones for the first time accompanied by their tweeted comments and thoroughly enjoyed it. Many more viewings of it are in my future.

Director Robert Clouse had a career that almost exclusively consisted of filming guys getting beat up by badasses, his films spanning from the classic Enter the Dragon (where he first worked with Jim Kelly) to the China O'Brien movies and the insanity of Gymkata, with stars the likes of Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jackie Chan, Robert Mitchum, Joe Don Baker, Cynthia Rothrock, and Bolo Yeung. He only strayed out of the action genre a few times. He made two horror films, both featuring killer animals: dogs in The Pack and large rats (dachshunds in rat costumes) in Deadly Eyes.

Jim Kelly starred in a movie called The Tattoo Connection in 1978, which was also marketed as Black Belt Jones 2. Don't be fooled, the films are not really connected. The character of Black Belt Jones was only brought to the screen in one film, which is a crying shame. He should've gotten a franchise.

If you're in the mood to enjoy a silly '70s action flick, I highly recommend Black Belt Jones. Check it out, then enjoy lunch at Black Belt's favorite restaurant.

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