Warner Brothers have been rather peculiar in how their 1970s Blaxploitation titles have been represented on the DVD format. Take for instance CLEOPATRA JONES; it was one of the first titles the company released on the format back in 1999 (in an anamorphic transfer that still holds up quite well I might ad) even though it’s not exactly a mainstream title. More recently, Warner issued a retailer-friendly, budget “4 Films Collection” (THREE THE HARD WAY, BLACK BELT JONES, HOT POTATO, BLACK SAMSON) but CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD was suspiciously absent. But now the Warner Archive Collection has released the film (along with HIT MAN) as an online exclusive, so even though paying around $20 for one title is not as good as paying around $12 for four, we’ll take it.
Six foot-two government agent Cleopatra Jones (the late Tamara Dobson) is on a mission in Hong Kong to stop a notorious drug pipeline that’s making it’s way to the U.S. Her loyal homeboys the Johnson brothers – Matthew (Albert Popwell) and Melvin (Caro Kenyatta) – are already in the Orient posing as drug dealers with a suitcase full of cut-in-half loot. The deal goes haywire, and the Johnson brothers avoid gunfire, becoming well-pampered prisoners of the Dragon Lady (Stella Stevens), a cold-hearted drug lord who runs an enormous casino in Macao. Cleo teams up with petite but feisty Mi Ling Fong (Ni Tien, here billed as “Tanny”), adept at martial arts, as they comb the underworld looking for leads, getting into numerous perils and scraps with the opposite sex, something the duo easily handles. Eventually, they discover that the casino (which doubles as a narcotics manufacturing plant) is the center of all the corruption, as they go in to bring down the Dragon Lady and rescue Cleo’s friends.
If you remember 1973’s CLEOPATRA JONES, that film introduced Dobson as the title character, first overseeing the destruction of a poppy field in Turkey, and then facing the wrath of lesbian drug lord “Mommy” (Shelley Winters) back in the inner-cities of California. CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD follows the same formula (bringing back three of the main characters created by Max “The Mack” Julien), but expanding the action to the picturesque locations in Hong Kong and Macao (boasting impressive cinematography by Alan Hume), and with better orchestrated action scenes and an obviously much looser budget. The first film’s producer, William Tennant, is back, but this one was co-produced by the legendary Run Run Shaw during the height of the kung fu craze. Apparently, after Warner had a massive success with ENTER THE DRAGON, they wanted to bring some of that flavor into this production.
Although the film is high on stunts and thrills (including a chaotic conclusion in the multi-tiered casino involving white-garbed heroes on motorcycles with machine guns against the black-garbed baddies and their hand pistols), the chop socky action is limited and for the most part, uninspired. One of the more memorable of the martial arts sequences has the beautiful Ni Tien (a Shaw Bros legend for certain) wearing nothing but a short silk robe, with her arms tied up by a red ribbon, kicking her way through a small army of home-invading thugs (Cleo eventually busts the door down to offer some help). There’s a subplot involving drug dealer Soo Da Chan (Shen Chan, who’ll recognize from his appearance as the long-haired Kah, transformed into Dracula in Hammer’s THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES) escaping death and hiding out from the Dragon Lady, with Cleo and Mi Ling also hot on his tail. He has a great confrontation with Stevens; a sword fight to the death on top of a blade-encircled torture contraption.
Like in the first film, Dobson has the charisma and unique appearance, even if it is in a very campy mid 1970s kind of way. Also credited with doing her own make-up, Dobson’s face here looks like a Kabuki artists, or David Bowie during his “Aladdin Sane” period, and her wardrobe changes are pretty loud for a 6’2” black woman going undercover in the busy streets of Hong Kong (but that 1970s cinema for you, and we love it). Stella Stevens (who like Shelley Winters’ character in the first film, is an evil, tyrannical lesbian) also has a variety of fancy wardrobe changes, most of them of the low cut variety. Two years before his career-changing comic role on “Three’s Company”, Normal Fell plays the irritating government official that Cleo checks in with, and his character’s name is Stanley!
Warner Home Video has released CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD as a made-to-order DVD as part of their online-only Warner Archive Collection. There’s not much to complain about in terms of quality, as the film has been presented in its original Panavision 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. Colors are extremely bold (as I’ve said before, many of these 1970s films have colors which seem to no longer exist) and detail is sharp, if sometimes inky-looking in some of the darker scenes. The print source has some random speckling, but never anything too distracting. The mono audio presents a serviceable rendering of the English track. No extras on this MOD release, but at least Warner is continuing a high level of quality packaging, using catchy poster art rather than a generic, boxed-off image (which they had been doing with this line early on). For more information on this title, click HERE. (George R. Reis)
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