Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, March 18, 2017

BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: Three the Hard Way (1974)

As a cinematic fad, blaxploitation peaked in 1974. That year saw the most entry into the genre, most of them from low budget, independent filmmakers. It's unlikely that the directors and actors involved knew, at the time, that blaxploitation would be considered passe in just a year or two. Then again, maybe they did. In hopes of drawing in bigger crowds, director Gordon “Super Fly” Parks Jr. would make a movie starring three of the genre's biggest stars. “Three the Hard Way” would fashion an unlikely plot to bring Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, and Jim Kelly together. Essentially the film was “The Black Expendables” three decades before such a thing could exist. It was also the first of several team-up movies Brown and Williamson would do.

Record producer and all-around bad ass Jimmy Lait gets an unpleasant surprise. An old friend drags himself to Jimmy's home. The friend is near death and tells a story about a group of white supremacists living in the countryside, concocting a conspiracy to sterilize the black population of three majors cities. The villains soon discover Lait is on to them, attempting to end his life. Jimmy calls in two of his friends – lady's man Jagger Daniels and karate expert Mister Keyes – and the three work together to destroy this villainous plot. When Jimmy's girlfriend is kidnapped, the mission becomes even more personal.

“Three the Hard Way” doesn't gather together three of the biggest black stars of the day just for the obvious box office value. The film happily coasts on its stars' established screen personas. Jim Brown's character is stoic, tough, and utterly unstoppable with a machine gun. Fred Williamson's Jagger is better dressed, funnier, and enjoys the company of multiple women. Jim Kelly, meanwhile, is energetic but to-the-point. The film makes no attempt to expand the characters' beyond these vague sketches. Brown's Lait is a capable bad ass but we never find out why a record producer is so tough. How the three heroes know each other is never expanded on. If they're old war buddies or something similar, it's left up to the audience to assume. The script is so eager to get to the action scene that we learn almost nothing about its heroes. Brown, Williamson, and Kelly are all hugely charismatic figures but even they need a little more than this to work with.

Character background isn't the only way “Three the Hard Way's” script is lacking. The story is not very clearly conveyed. The heroes are often attacked by bad guys who had no way of locating them. Scenes do not flow smoothly into each other. The film roughly cuts between Brown sabotaging the white supremacist's base to Williamson running from another batch of enemies. The relationship between these moments are not conveyed properly. Considering Gordon Park Jr.'s  direction is just as rough here as it was in “Super Fly,” I'm willing to blame the sometimes incoherent editing on him as well.

Even though the movie is the plot is full of holes and Park's direction is undeniably rough, “Three the Hard Way” still has some amusingly colorful moments. The white supremacist villains are way over-the-top. Their leader, Mr. Feather, is portrayed as an eccentric, comic book adversary. His evil scheme, to add a sterilizing agent that only affect black people to the water supplies of major city, also seems like something that would come out of a comic book than a serious crime story. The bad guys hoists a modified Nazi flag, employ a nutty mad scientist, and throw swanky parties. Honestly, many of the script's elements – the endless supply of goons, the villain's secret compound base – more recalls the action films of the next decade than this one. Another wacky element is the trio of color coded dominatrices Brown hires to interrogate a captured racist. (This, not coincidentally, also allows for gratuitous nudity, as the women do all their work topless.)

Then again, maybe complaining that the plot of “Three the Hard Way” barely makes any sense is missing the point. The movie is designed to be an action sequence delivery machine, a goal it succeeds at. Really, it's not long after the movie starts before Jim Brown is leaping over moving cars. An even better scene has Brown climbing atop a speeding truck, yanking the drivers out. Later, Jim and Fred get into a fire fight inside a pinball arcade, an admittedly clever touch. Jim Kelly is introduced by karate chopping a collection of racist cops, an undeniably cathartic scene punctuated with slow motion. It all builds towards the conclusion, where the heroes crash the racist party mixer. Progressively bigger explosions appears, countless cars and buildings consumed by huge fireballs. Honestly, it's pretty impressive considering the low budget the film surely had.

“Three the Hard Way” would obviously have an effect on blaxploitation fans. Two future parodies, “Undercover Brother” and “Black Dynamite,” would both reference elements of its plot. Audiences must have liked it too. The same trio of stars would re-team for spaghetti western “Take a Hard Ride” and eighties actioneer, “One Down, Two to Go.” I wish I enjoyed the movie a little more, as there are certainly some likable elements too. However, more coherence behind the camera would've been appreciated as would a stronger director. That speaks to parks' ineptitude as a filmmaker. You kind of have to work to screw up a deal this sweet, even just mildly. [6/10]

[X] Afros or Sideburns
[] Brothels or Pimps
[] 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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