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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: Black Belt Jones (1974)

Much has been written about the appeal martial arts films had among black audiences. Maybe its because kung-fu movies mostly played in urban areas. Maybe its because African-American cinema goers appreciated seeing other people of color as heroes. Bruce Lee, as much a savvy businessman as a film icon, capitalized on this trend by casting karate champion Jim Kelly in “Enter the Dragon.” The blockbuster success of that film would help Kelly become the last superstar of the blaxploitation movement. “Black Belt Jones” was Kelly's first feature as a leading man, “Enter the Dragon's director Robert Clouse tagging along to make sure it was successful. Soon, the karate expert, possibly with an afro, would become an almost required aspect of the genre.

Black Belt Jones is a karate master and an occasional government agent. When not kicking ass, he hangs out at an inner-city dojo. That dojo is the sole piece of valuable property that the mob hasn't taken control of. A black pusher, who has some unsettled debt with the dojo's owner, is employed by the mob to shake the landowners down. In the process, they kill the old man who owns the place. Black Belt Jones contacts the man's daughter, both quickly becoming targets of the mafia. Soon, the two team up to pay back the mob for the crimes committed against them.

Many blaxploitation action flicks relied on the charisma of their leading men. Jim Brown and Fred Williamson weren't exactly Shakespearean thespians but their screen presence made them compelling performers nevertheless. Into this fold steps Jim Kelly. In “Black Belt Jones,” Kelly occasionally has a stiff moment. When delivering expositionary dialogue, his interest visibly wanes. Throughout most of “Black Belt Jones,” Kelly is having the time of his life. He projects a smooth confidence, charming the audience with a smile or a simple hand gesture. He punctuates normal scenes with little touches, such as a fast-footed little dance. He has a great rapport with his supporting cast, especially Gloria Hendry who is given much more to do here then as the frequently abused moll in “Black Caesar.” A playful chase scene between the two across a beach, including somersaults and balloon popping, is one of the film's highlights.

Mostly, “Black Belt Jones” is a ridiculously entertaining affair. The action scenes are fantastic. The opening credits play over a sequence of Kelly owning a group of attackers, flipping through the air with ease and smashing one goon through a car window. Defenestration is a reoccurring feature in the film. After being chased onto a bus, Jones slams two separate attackers through two separate windows. Another, especially amusing fight ends with a baddie getting a slow-mo kick through yet another plate of glass. Hendry gets in on the action too, dismantling a pool hall full of jerks with fierce karate moves. The movie concludes with a spectacularly goofy car chase, in which panties and yellow paint are weaponized, leading to a fight scene in a car wash. Among the suds, Kelly spin-kicks his opponents, improves a pair of nun-chucks, and tosses each enemy into the back of a garbage truck. It's fucking poetry.

Despite a plot that involves murder and mafia intimidation, “Black Belt Jones” is characterized by an intentionally comedic, infectiously goofy tone. The drug pusher, a large black man named Pinkie, is an ineffectual clown. One of his henchmen bounces an opponent against his big gut. The mafia baddies are each exaggerated cliches, frequently peppering their speech with words ending in a. Scatman Crothers – yes, Hong Kong Phooey himself – co-stars as the owner of the dojo. He has a rotund girlfriend who requests frequent booty calls. His funeral features his students performing karate stances. The height of the movie's enchanting goofiness is a sequence where Jones and a group of lady gymnast sneak into the bad guy's lair. They bounce off trampolines, stick photographs in front of cameras, and utilize whipped cream.

While a few blaxploitation flicks feature laughs of the mostly unintentional variety, “Black Belt Jones” knows it's funny. Unlike the forced camp of “Cleopatra Jones,” this other Jones pulls the audience along for a speedy adventure that is highly entertaining. Instead of the grittiness most films in the genre employ, this one is more like a live action cartoon, silly and light-weight. Though his reign atop the box office would be short, Jim Kelly would certainly make his mark upon the genre. “Black Belt Jones” is a whole lot of fun and totally worth the 85 minutes it'll take you to watch it. [8/10]

[X] Afros or Sideburns
[] Brothels or Pimps
[X] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
[] Homophobic Caricatures
[X] Inner-City Setting
[] Night Club Act
[X] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[X] Racist Authority Figures
[X] Sticking It to the Man
[X] Sweet Love Makin'
[X] Use of Street Slang

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