Honestly there is one subgenre within the viewing habits of the average cult film enthusiast that needs a little more love. Specifically this would be the Blaxploitation film from the 1970’s to early 1980’s. These films where really a breed of their own and utterly perfect for their time period. Obvious there is the more well know Blaxploitation features that most know such as Shaft, Soulfly, Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song and Black Cesar, but there are a few which have been little seen gaining a great cult reputation over the years. Lesser-known features such as Lee Ross’s The Thing With Two Heads or the enjoyably silly Truck Turner starring Isaac Hayes in the only film to give him a starting role billing (along with a soundtrack credit) are perfect examples of forgotten Blaxploitation.
Personally there was always one that had stayed with me since it was first watched in those difficult adolescent years. I am of course talking about the truly great Blaxploitation martial arts fest Black Belt Jones starring Jim Jones and his amazing Afro. This along with Enter the Dragon where what became the first action packed martial arts fests my young eyes view. It was not until much later that I realised Robert Clouse directed both of these pieces of 70s brilliance. Obviously tastes change over the years but there has (and will) always be a part of me that is endeared towards crap martial arts films. But enough of my rambling and reminiscing what of the Kung Fu kicking, soul slapping, jive talking Black Belt Jones and its actor Jim Kelly I hear you cry.
Well for starters this probably has the best opening sequence to any cheesy martial arts film as black belt jones appears leaping from the top of a stationary car onto some car park thugs, all done with slow-mo, funky bass lines/speed bongos and freeze frames (and lets not forget the 70’s martial arts sound effects). I dare anyone not to sit back and enjoy this sequence even if you are a film snob you can appreciate the downright fun they are having with his sequence and if not check it for the soul reason of ball breaking punches. This is perfect Friday night film fodder.
The story or what little there is of it, basically concerns Jones stopping a bunch of mafia henchmen from bulldozing and building a new civic centre over his old training dojo, and after they murder his mentor Pops Byrd (the always classy and great Scatman Crothers) its up to Jones and Pops daughter to hunt down his killer and stop them from destroying the Dojo. Now that sounds as though there is some high kicking, ball bashing, karate chopping action afoot and you would be correct. Yes, it is clichéd and dated but if you can get a laugh from it, unintentional or otherwise surely it is worth look if you are lucky enough to see it.
Ok granted this is not the best Blaxploitation film out there (great films like Coffy), but it is the best Blaxploitation martial arts film and certainly Jim Kelly’s best role next to Enter the Dragon. There is just so much to like about this cheap and cheerful piece of 70s fisticuffs, such as the impressively funky soundtrack being one of the any Blaxpliotation film has made (along with Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack for Superfly). Scored by Dennis Coffy and Luchi De Jesus it contains some fantastic beats that combine well with the action unfolding on screen, it utterly involves you within the film allowing for that fantastic 70s vibe to wash over you.
It is also the only film I know from recollection that contains a martial arts fight within a car wash, suds and all. As Jim Kelly takes them down literally one at a time with his ever trusty sidekick (in the form of Gloria Hendry) slapping and karate chopping bad guys before dumping them within a garbage truck. It really has to be seen instead of described, mainly for its sheer brilliance in achieving something so strange and different (even if it is a little dated now). Inventive action sequences are always a genuine highlight if they are done well, and for its time (when martial arts was just taking off with western audiences) it still feels fun and interesting to watch. Specifically as it is a little lighter and more easy going then the harder Blaxploitation flicks.
It really is a real shame that this gem of a film has not been given a proper release on DVD or Blu-Ray, as it honestly is a fun film that doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously. If you happen to be lucky enough to see it you will find it grows on you, and if you have seen Black Dynamite starring Michael Jai White you might well see some connections between the two.
If possible avoid the dire semi-sequel to this called Hot Potato, due to the fact it is not as nearly as much fun or enjoyable as this. Black Belt Jones could easily be placed on a double bill with Jim Kelly’s other, slightly odder Kung Fu outing Black Samurai. There really is some under rated treasures to be found; hopefully somebody will release this classic cult film on DVD or Blu-Ray soon.
Jim Kelly … Black Belt Jones
Gloria Hendry … Sydney
Scatman Crothers … Pop Byrd
Eric Laneuville … Quincy
Alan Weeks … Toppy
Andre Philippe … Don Steffano
Directed By … Robert Clouse