Saturday, September 13, 2014

Karate Champ Jim Kelly Stars In Black Belt Jones

A superbad martial arts master takes on the mob and a powerful drug dealer in this fun, action-packed film.

(review contains spoilers)

Black Belt Jones (1974) is quite an interesting and entertaining hybrid of two film genres that were extremely popular back in the early 1970s: blaxploitation movies and Kung Fu flicks. It was inevitable that these two genres would eventually intersect. And what better way to do it than to get a badass brotha who’s a martial arts expert and place much of the action smack dab in the middle of the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles. It's sort of like The Chinese Connection meets Trouble Man. The late international Karate champion Jim Kelly plays Black Belt Jones, who's a mixture of James Bond and Shaft with some Bruce Lee thrown in. Jones sometimes hires out his martial arts expertise and espionage talents to do special jobs for government types as well as guarding dignitaries.

Karate School Owner Gets Pressure From The Mob

The plot centers on a Karate studio that is located in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles, which is owned and operated by Pop Byrd (Scatman Crothers), Jones's old friend. The studio sits in an area that is planned for redevelopment. Realizing that the studio could be sitting on a potential gold mine, the mob wants to buy it and won’t take no for an answer. The mob taps Pinky (Malik Carter), a powerful local gangster and drug dealer, to strong arm Pop into selling the property to them. Pop is eventually forced to enlist the help of his old friend Jones. This leads to a number of great action scenes with the Afro-crowned martial arts ace whipping butt and taking names.

Kelly Displays Stellar Martial Arts Skills But Stiff Acting

Jim Kelly pulls off his action scenes with style and flair. He has a fluid and commanding fighting style, mixing Karate with street boxing; and like Bruce Lee, Kelly has his own signature fighting grunts and yells. However, his acting is another story altogether. Kelly’s acting is wooden in the non-action scenes; he rarely sounds convincing in much of the dialogue. However, his charisma and commanding presence during the fight sequences more than make up for his stiff acting.  He completely owns the screen during the action scenes.

Gloria Hendry Makes For Great Romantic Interest And Badass Fighter

The extremely foxy Gloria Hendry is well-cast as Pop Byrd's tough, headstrong daughter Sydney, who is Jones’s love interest and fighting ally. Hendry is a solid actress and has a regal beauty about her. And she handles herself well in the action scenes. She is a very physical actress, and her feline athleticism is well-suited for the role. And she’s a stronger actor than Kelly, which is a big help in the romantic scenes between the two and prevents these scenes from being too bad.

Robert Clouse Directs With Tongue In Cheek

The film is directed by the late Robert Clouse, who also directed Enter The Dragon and Game of Death, Bruce Lee's last two films before his untimely death at age 32. Clouse directs Black Belt Jones with a great deal of camp and humor. Much of the dialogue is intentionally cheesy, and even the fight scenes have a lot of humor in them.  And Clouse definitely knew how to set up action scenes. For instance, he does a terrific job in setting up the film's exciting intro. It begins with Jones descending from atop a patrol car in slow motion like a badass bird of prey. The entire scene is set to guitarist and composer Dennis Coffey's funky "Black Belt Jones" theme song. Jones dispatches of the thugs without even breaking a sweat; and not a single strand of his perfectly spherical Afro is knocked out of place during the brawl. The screenplay was penned by filmmaker/screenwriter Oscar Williams.

Good Solid Cast

And Clouse did a great job in the film's casting, particularly in getting Kelly for the lead and Hendry as his love interest and fighting ally. Hendry really shines in the film. She's cool, confident and sophisticated as Sydney and does a bang-up job in the action scenes. One of the film's biggest highlights has Hendry in only a shirt taking out bad guys in a garbage truck car wash. It's quite sexy to say the least. Scatman Crothers provides some great comic relief as Pop Byrd. Pop is basically a good guy, but he's kind of irresponsible and given to gambling and womanizing. But Pop can handle himself when things get dicey. It's a treat to watch Scatman Crothers whoop some butt with some Karate chops and kicks.

And for those who grew up in the '70s and '80s, there are a number of recognizable faces from television in the cast. Some of them include Marla Gibbs (The Jeffersons and 227) as a bartender and Eric Laneuville (Room 222) as one of the students at Pop Byrd's Karate school. Also, keep an eye out for Ted Lange, who played Issac the bartender on The Love Boat, as a young militant. And he's actually quite convincing in the role.

Film Is An Enjoyable Showcase For Jim Kelly's Unique Talents

Black Belt Jones is a fun and highly entertaining film and was the perfect vehicle for Kelly to showcase his tremendous martial arts skills. Some of Kelly's other significant film roles include Enter The Dragon, Three The Hard Way and Hot Potato.

Black Belt Jones at Amazon