Monday, February 7, 2011

Black Belt Jones (1974)

Though Enter the Dragon was Bruce Lee's breakout hit, his meteoric rise to stardom hit a small snag when he died three weeks before the film's premiere. Despite this minor inconvenience, Dragon contained within it a glimmer of hope. Jim Kelly, Bruce's soul brother counterpart, contained half of Bruce's martial arts skill but at least 32% more smug charm. Plus he had an afro.

With Lee out of the picture, director Robert Clouse would hold off desecrating his corpse for another six years to focus on a live actor instead. 1974's Black Belt Jones borrows the basic premise of The Chinese Connection and adds more crotch shots and car wash fights.

With a name this cool, why wouldn't you get excited?

Kelly stars as Black Belt Jones, a suave ladies man with a penchant for butt-kicking. Though he helps stand up for the righteous, his actual job title is unclear. Is he a bodyguard? Police officer? Community organizer? Whatever his profession, he can afford a picturesque beachfront property surrounded by gorgeous white girls jumping on trampolines.

You thought I was joking.

While Jones lives the American Dream, local street toughs led by A. "Pinky" Pinkus (Makik Carter), through a mandate from Italian mob stereotypes, try desperately to take over the karate school of Jones's former sensei Poppa Bird (Scatman Crothers). Jones simply will not stand for this encroachment, and heroically confronts the goons in an epic lights on/lights off battle royale at the school.

The hat was not there a moment ago.

When the gangsters accidentally kill Bird, his daughter Sydney (Gloria Hendry) comes to settle his estate. If by "settle" I mean "kick the ever-loving shit out of" and by "estate" I mean "enemies."

Death by erection.

Jones finds this show of sexy, relentless ferocity irresistible, but hides his feelings through a mixture of smug confidence and overt sexism. The two lovebirds engage in a mating dance on the beach, where they trade escalating rape scenarios and smash some poor hippie's guitar for no reason.

The true victim.

Meanwhile, Jones and Sydney crush the mafia stranglehold beset upon the city. In a fight within a train car, Jones smashes the heads of 789 mobsters through every single window.

"Did you take the picture? Right on."

When the duo is cornered in a giant car wash, Jones takes them all on one by one (the most effective way for petty thugs to attack a martial arts master) in the suds.

"You should CLEAN UP your act!"

Black Belt Jones takes all the emerging tropes of blaxploitation and both embraces and subverts them. At the beginning of the film, Pinky is confronted by members of the Black Student Union who are enraged that he exploits his own community with drugs and violence. Pinky makes it clear that he is only in it for the money. Though the Italian mobsters are the top of the villain pyramid, it's black gangster Pinky who does the majority of the grunt work. Neither party has any greater aspirations to destroy the Black Man, they do whatever it costs to get ahead.

Even Black Belt Jones does not necessarily stand up for a higher racial cause. He's just a cool black guy punching people who wronged his friends. Black Belt shows that he can be a role model not by symbolically standing up for what's right, but what's right in front of him. Sydney shows she can do the same thing and subvert conventions about both her race and sex.

Though Black Belt Jones won't find itself in the National Film Registry anytime soon, it is a fun movie with entertaining fight scenes, plenty of wakajawaka music, a strong black protagonist, and a sense of humor.

Arbitrary rating:

One big, beautiful afro (23 inches in diameter)

Quotable quotes:
Black Belt Jones: Why don't you get the cats upstairs to make believe it's a ghetto? Get a couple of tanks and blast it down.

Black Belt Jones: Don't believe that bullshit about niggers being invisible.

Pop Bird: (after kicking a thug in the crotch) Who else wants to sing soprano?

Pinky: I got a couple of Bogarts coming in from Frisco.
Mobster: Bogarts? What are Bogarts?
Pinky: Treacherous niggers.

Black Belt Jones: You stay here until I get back. Do those dishes or something.
Sydney: (shoots all the dishes) They're done.

Pinky: What's holdin' you up Black BUTT??


Black Belt rewards his allies handsomely.

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