Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1975)

History has decided which black actress became the icon. Even back in the seventies, Pam Grier's  trademark characters overshadowed Tamara Dobson's “Cleopatra Jones.” However, Dobson's first go-around at action stardom clearly made Warner Brothers some money. In 1975, the character would return with the fabulously entitled “Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold.” Even at this early a date, the blaxploitation fad was starting to wane. This is evident in the second “Cleopatra Jones” movie. Co-produced by Hong Kong's Run Run Shaw, the sequel is just as much a kung-fu film and a James Bond riff as it is a black-centric adventure.

Two black American agents are sent to Hong Kong in order to investigate a heroine smuggling ring. While attempting to befriend one drug boss, they are captured by another. Calling herself the Dragon Lady, she operates her illegal operation out of a lavish, golden casino. Cleopatra Jones is sent to locate the two agents. She quickly teams up with Mi Ling, a Hong Kong-based agent, and quickly sets out to undo the Dragon Lady's empire.

The first “Cleopatra Jones'” campy atmosphere struck me as forced, ultimately at odds with the crime story it was trying to tell. The sequel shifts the setting to the Far East, which brings with it an entirely different energy. By fitting the character into the “anything can happen” mold of a Shaw Bros. movie, Cleo's comic book style adventure suddenly go down a lot easier. You're more willing to accept a super model secret agent, who wears a series of preposterously over-designed outfits. The villain being another evil lesbian seems less offensive. As does the “Flash Gordon” style ring of swords she forces a captured rival to fight inside. The action is bigger and the production design is more extravagant, blending together with a more coherently silly tone.

It also helps that Cleopatra Jones herself is a little more human this time. In the first movie, Dobson's heroine struck me as too perfect, too ready for any situation. She's still a hyper confident fighter with the power to charm anyone. But she also needs some help. By giving Cleo a sidekick, in the form of Mi Ling, the character has someone to bounce catty dialogue off of. She actually seems to be having fun spending time with Mi Ling, proving that she's human after all. Moreover, Tamara Dobson seems more comfortable on this second mission. She shows more humor, more ease.

Perhaps more important then any of that is the sequel ramps the action way the fuck up. There's an early car chase through a Hong Kong market place, featuring plenty of collateral damage and a big explosion at the end. This follows a fight in a bar, where guys tumble through doors and get knives throw into their chests. A memorable scene has Mi Ling attacked in her apartment, kung-fu kicking and leaping her way out of trouble. Amusingly, she does this with her arms bound, as the assassins tied her up with a red ribbon. For the climax, the film features a huge attack on the Dragon Lady's  casino. A motorcycle is driven around the building, crashing through doors, ramping through the air, and eventually exploding on a craps table. An entire succession of henchmen tumble over railings. Lots of goons are machine gunned or stabbed. A grenade takes out an entire balcony. It's pretty fun stuff.

Seventies sex symbol Stella Stevens, last seen in “Slaughter,” plays the villain. The film doesn't hammer home her evil, sapphic ways as much as it did with Shelly Winters in the first one. If it wasn't for the opening lesbian love-fest, shared with her sexually submissive concubines, you'd never know Stevens' drug empress was queer. (And considering how close Cleo and Mi Ling seem, the movie almost gets a pass for it.) If nothing else, Stevens hams it up nicely in the part. Ni Tien, with her thousand watts smile, is very charming as Mi Ling. In a bizarre casting choice, Norman Fell – Mr. Roper himself – plays Jones' boss. Amazingly, Fell's character isn't casually racist. Shockingly, there's pretty much no casual racism in “Casino of Gold” at all!

“Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold” wasn't as successful as the first in the series, meaning Cleopatra Jones would have no further adventure. (Though “The Kentucky Fried Movie” would feature a direct parody of the film called “Cleopatra Schwartz.”) Today, the duo is regarded as a fairly obscure relic of the seventies, receiving only a fraction of the notoriety that its contemporaries maintain. Despite this, the sequel is a big improvement over the first one, featuring a more amusing tone and far more impressive action sequences. I would probably have been up for a third film, based on this one, but it wasn't meant to be. [7/10]

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

No comments: