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Directors: Robert Clouse, Oscar Williams, Chuck Bail, Gordon Parks Jr.
Warner Home Video

Without much fanfare (their publicity department isn’t even promoting the title), Warner once again digs into their vaults for more catalog titles of the cult variety. Here, four long-awaited 1970s “Blaxploitation” flicks bow on DVD for the first time, released here as one of their “4 Film Favorites” series (Urban Action Collection), which could have easily been labeled “The Jim Kelly Collection” if not for the inclusion of BLACK SAMSON. Naturally, this budget-priced set is a must for Blaxploitation completists, Jim Kelly fans, and just about anyone interested in big afroed 1970s exploitation/action films, and if you’re having trouble finding it ("Bust Buy" stores apparently aren’t carrying it), I found my copy at a local Target store for a whopping $9.99.

BLACK BELT JONES (1974) stars former International Middleweight Karate Champion Jim Kelly in the titular role. Attempting to acquire some important photographs from the winery/mansion of Italian crime boss Don Steffano (Andre Philippe), the police turn to Black Belt Jones to do the job. Reluctant at first, Jones takes things personally when the Don muscles in on the Karate school owned by womanizing gambler Pop Byrd (Scatman Crothers wearing a ridiculous hairpiece), who is soon murdered by inner city thug Pinky (Malik Carter) and his gang, who are in cahoots with the crime boss. Pop’s estranged daughter Sydney (Gloria Hendry, BLACK CAESAR) comes to town for the funeral, and has only vengeance on her mind. Also a karate expert, she teams up with Jones to go after Pinky’s gang, and pull off a heist in Don Steffano’s well guarded abode in a carefully devised scheme involving female trampolinists guised like ninjas and a handy Polaroid camera.

With BLACK BELT JONES, director Robert Clouse and producers Fred Weintraub and Paul M. Heller attempted to recapture the splendor of ENTER THE DRAGON, with Bruce Lee’s co-star, Kelly, in his first starring role. Melding the black action genre with martial arts, the film succeeds as total hokey entertainment. The action is non-stop, the comic bits are quite funny, the dialog is anything but politically correct, the characters are often stereotypical (picture Italian mafiosos saying stuff like “mama mia” and African Americans calling each other “nigger”) and Kelly’s karate sequences are well-orchestrated and wonderfully over-the-top (especially when he challenges a gang of surrounding adversaries in a train car by smashing each of their heads through the glass windows). Hendry (a blaxpoitation star in her own right) is fun as the tough-as-nails love interest (Jones’ courting of her brings on a humorous sequence of events on the beach), looking like she really knows karate and performing such tasks as lifting a guy by the groin into a sanitation truck. The cast is full of familiar faces, with Eric Laneuville (THE OMEGA MAN) on deck as a karate school student who gets abducted by Pinky, Vincent Barbi (THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES) as a brutish henchman known as “Big Tuna”, and future sitcom stars Ted Lange (“The Love Boat”) and Marla Gibbs (“The Jeffersons”) in cameo roles. BLACK BELT JONES’ unforgettable theme song was composed by Dennis Coffey, best known for his funky 1972 instrumental classic “Scorpio”.

Also on Disc 1 is HOT POTATO (1976), a follow-up of sorts to BLACK BELT JONES, with Jim Kelly playing a character known simply as “Jones”. The daughter (Judith Brown, THE BIG DOLL HOUSE) of an American ambassador is held captive by an Asian crime lord (Sam Hiona) in a temple in the jungles of Thailand. The government hires able martial artist Jones on a rescue mission with a team that includes sidekick Chicago (Geoffrey Binney, RAW FORCE), a local policewoman (Irene Tsu, WOMEN OF THE PREHISTORIC PLANET) and an overweight buffoon named Rhino (the late great George Memmoli, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE). Jones and his crew, traveling on horseback and at times with covered wagons, manage to get the job done as they fight off a number of native assailants in ridiculous costumes, but they rescue the wrong woman. You see, the bad guys dug up an identical decoy (also Judith Brown), so our heroes' work is hardly done as they encounter further mishaps and jungle perils.

As you can probably tell by its nondescript title, HOT POTATO bears a light, comic tone (it’s the only PG-rated movie on this set) with some of the awkward fighting sequences even enhanced by silly sound effects suitable for a Saturday morning cartoon. The direction by Oscar Williams (writer of BLACK BELT JONES and the terrific Isaac Hayes vehicle TRUCK TURNER) is sloppy and therefore the film is all over the place and only mildly amusing. It may be scenic (shot entirely on location in Thailand) and Kelly does get to display his fighting skills, but it’s still a disappointment, at times feeling like a really badly written episode of “The A Team”. You would think giving George Memmoli (still chunky, but much lighter than he appeared in MEAN STREETS and PHANTOM) a lot of screen time would be beneficial, but the character (given to Three Stooges-types antics and a lot of insults about his weight) quickly becomes grating. Sam Hiona’s master villain could have been a highlight (he has a pair of man-eating tigers that he dangles the tied-up heroine over) but he’s completely dull and unthreatening, and his climatic kung fu confrontation with Kelly is a letdown.

Disc 2 commences with 1974’s BLACK SAMSON, directed by stuntman/actor Chuck Bail, who also helmed a lot of episodic TV and handful of feature films. With his afro, an array of African shirts, a pet lion on a leash (!) and his tall decorated walking stick, six-foot five-inch Rockne Tarkington stars as the titular character. Owner of a friendly neighborhood titty bar, Samson certainly doesn’t mind if the locals ogle at topless cuties or guzzle one beer after the other, but he doesn’t believe in drugs, fighting to keep his streets clean. This poses a problem for Italian crime boss Joseph Nappa (Greek character actor Titos Vandis) who permits his headstrong nephew Johnny (the great William Smith) to do all the dirty work. Johnny attempts to bargain with Samson using a shady lawyer (John Alderman, LOVE CAMP 7), nearly has him killed by his toughies on the upper level of a parking garage and in an alley, and he sends his shapely blond girlfriend (Connie Strickland, THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS) to work in the bar as a topless dancer (yum, yum!) in order to spy on him. When this all fails, Johnny has Samson’s woman (Carol Speed, ABBY) abducted and this brings the lofty do-gooder to the brink as he breaks into the Nappa headquarters on a vengeful rescue mission to reclaim his woman and his neighborhood.

Since BLACK SAMSON is the only feature on this set not to include an appearance by Jim Kelly, it’s ironic that Tarkington turned down the career-making role that Kelly was given in ENTER THE DRAGON. At any rate, with its WALKING TALL-like plotline of pushing a decent, resilient dude way too far, BLACK SAMSON is an enjoyable edition to the Blaxploitation cycle, with a charmingly low key performance by Tarkington and enough violence (some truly misogynistic baddies and Samson using his walking stick thing as a deadly weapon), reckless car chases and topless women to make it comparable with similar AIP drive-in fare of the period. One of the screen’s greatest tough guy actors to ever grace exploitation cinema, William Smith, is a gem here, playing a downright nasty, abusive, bigoted and ill-tempered son of a bitch. As Johnny Nappo, Smith (who played a very similar role in HAMMER opposite Fred Williamson) is seen breaking a cocktail glass with his fist, smashing a bottle across a thug's face and throwing a woman out of a moving car, among other malevolent acts. The ending is a literal riot.

The last film in this collection and the only one not released theatrically by Warner Bros. (it was one of the last features released by Allied Artists) is THREE THE HARD WAY (1974), directed by Gordon Parks Jr. of SUPERFLY fame. A young black man escapes from some kind of hidden experimental compound, and finds his way to old friend Jimmy Lait (Jim Brown). Jimmy, a wealthy recording industry bigwig, is told by said friend of a widespread plan to wipe out the black race by a white supremacist group. The friend is killed in his hospital bed, and Jimmy’s woman Wendy (Sheila Frazer, SUPERFLY) is abducted. As Jimmy presumes he’s next on the hit list, he recruits pals Jagger Daniels (Fred Williamson) and Mister Keyes (Jim Kelly), who is adept at karate. Dodging numerous gun crazy racists everywhere they go, the trio conjures up a master plan to infiltrate the Nazi-like organization’s headquarters, rescue Wendy, and stop a devastating plan of genocide to affect all black people, something which is to initially occur throughout three major cities.

The first (and most memorable) of a handful of teamings of Blaxploitation superstars Brown, Williamson and Kelly, THREE THE HARD WAY is one of the most notorious films of its kind, mainly due to its outrageously fantastic plotline (something more akin to a Fu Manchu or 007 entry). The chemistry between Brown, Williamson and Kelly (whose character is introduced being framed by an NYC policeman, only to knock out a handful of uniformed officers with his chop socky retaliation) is undeniable and the film is heavy on action, gunplay and fiery car crashes (Hal Needham was the stunt coordinator), with director Parks doing a good job of churning out an above average popcorn flick. Veteran Hollywood actor Jay Robinson (THE ROBE) is cast as the Hitler wannabe Monroe Feather, downplaying the character until the last act, when he becomes expectedly batty. The Impressions (post Curtis Mayfield's departure) play a recording studio singing group and perform some of the soundtrack tunes, Charles McGregor (Fat Freddie in SUPERFLY) is Jimmy’s chrome-domed sidekick and Alex Rocco (THE GODFATHER) is rather wasted as a stubborn police lieutenant, but his presence is always welcomed. Look quickly for the appearance of a very young Corbin Bernsen (his father, Harry Bernsen, was the producer), and drive-in queen Roberta Collins has a walk-on as Jimmy's secretary.

The version of THREE THE HARD WAY presented here is the R-rated one, so all the four-letter words are intact, as is a titillating scene where three racially diverse female bikers torture a kidnapped supremacist with their tops off. It’s interesting to note that compared to an old VHS edition, in the aforementioned scene, the three girls are wearing bras, leading one to believe that a “clothed” version must have been shot for television airings. The VHS release also features two non-dialog scenes not present in Warner’s DVD transfer: Jagger taking a romantic speed boat ride with a gal pal and the three heroes’ drive (in a Lincoln) to a car wash while the film’s theme song (“Three The Hard Way” by The Impressions) plays in the background (in the DVD this scene just picks up where they enter the car wash). It doesn’t seem to be a music rights issues since the song is heard intact on the DVD during the end credits. Perhaps these missing bits (which seem like filler) were only used for the TV version, as the DVD runs 89 minutes, the commonly reported length of the theatrical cut.

The “Urban Action Collection” may be a budget DVD release, but the transfers certainly don’t reflect what's commonly associated with bargain bin collections of this sort. The films are presented with the usual standards expected from Warner. Each film has been transferred (apparently from the vault materials) in their original 1.85:1 aspect ratios with anamorphic enhancement. Overall, the films showcase excellent detail, bright colors (and these are vivid 1970s colors!) and very little in the way of dirt or debris. The mono audio presentations are perfectly adequate (with an occasional flaw here and there) and each title contains optional French and English subtitles, the latter for the hearing impaired. There are no extras on either of the two discs. Seek this set out folks, it’s well worth it, and I’d love to see more of these “soul cinema” collections from Warner (off hand, I can think of these Warner-owned titles that need DVD release: BLACK EYE; SWEET JESUS, PREACHERMAN; HIT MAN; COME BACK CHARLESTON BLUE; and CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD). (George R. Reis)