Fred Williamson makes his directorial debut with the character-driven action film MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS, on Blu-ray from Code Red Releasing.
Dishonorably discharged after punching out his superior officer O'Malley (karate promoter Aaron Banks, CRY UNCLE), Johnny Barrows (Williamson) returns home to Los Angeles only to be mugged upon arrival and dragged to jail as a presumed drunk by racist cops. Although he finds looking for a job frustrating, he prefers living on the street to taking a job from former college football rival turned mobster Mario Racconi (Stuart Whitman, DEMONOID). Johnny finds work at a gas station but gets arrested after a fight with the owner (R.G. Armstrong, EVILSPEAK) over his pay. With the help of girlfriend Nancy (Jenny Sherman), Mario tries to tempt Johnny into working for him he even refuses an offer he cannot refuse from Mario's father Don Racconi (VOYAGE OF THE DAMNED's Luther Adler, brother of acting coach Stella Adler) to wipe out the Don Da Vince (Anthony Caruso, CLAWS) who is moving dope into their territory using a flower shop run by fey younger son Tony (Roddy McDowall, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE) as a front. After Da Vince's men gun down Don Racconi, a gravely-wounded Mario appeals to Johnny to wipe out Don Da Vince, Tony, and other son Carlo (SOYLENT GREEN's Mike Henry, an ex-football player like Williamson). When Nancy is taken and roughed up by Tony, Johnny agrees to work for Mario; but was it a ploy by Mario to take advantage of Johnny's feelings or a double cross by Nancy?
Somewhat drawn-out at 95 minutes and more fascinating in retrospect than as a conventional Blaxploitation film, MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS finds former football star Williamson honing his filmmaking skills and his own image after headlining a handful of hits like BLACK CAESAR, HAMMER, and THREE THE HARD WAY. Williamson's hero is a star college football player who left school under a cloud to become a decorated but dishonorably discharged soldier given an inauspicious welcome home (the film is dedicated to "the veteran who traded his place on the front line for a place on the unemployment line"). Barrows' criminal acts are motivated by love rather than money yet indicative of his limited opportunities (especially when employers could ask to see discharge papers), and the film's fatalistic perspective that "Peace is Hell" is borne out by the ending. Whitman gives a decent performance with little to work from, while the film's old pros fall back on GODFATHER-esque Italian mafia gesticulating and delivery. Among the more outré touches is McDowall's ambitious Mafioso and an entirely-improvised cameo by William's M*A*S*H co-star Elliott Gould. Leon Isaac Kennedy (DEATH FORCE) makes an early appearance during the film's prologue and AMERICAN NINJA's Johnny LaMotta (nephew of Jake) appears as ill-fated hitman Antonio Gati. No DP is credited but Robert Caramico (LEMORA) is listed as "photographic consultant" is slick during interiors and exteriors shot on private property, but a bit more uneven during the many sequences shot without permit with the focus of the telephoto lens sometimes lagging behind the action. The scoring of Motown musician Paul Riser (WHICH WAY IS UP?) and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (THE EDUCATION OF SONNY CARSON) is interesting in the way it weaves its Gordon Staples and The Devastating Affair theme song throughout and capping off the downward turns of the scenes it accompanies with the sounds of an orchestra warming up or winding down.
Released on panned-and-scanned VHS by Unicorn Home Video in a clamshell case reproducing the original poster art, this inferior transfer wound up in multi-film Blaxploitation packs from the likes of Brentwood and TGG Direct. Code Red's 2010 DVD edition restored the film in high definition from its original 35mm negatives in their original Panavision 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio in an anamorphic transfer running the full ninety-five minute length (the film was usually shortened to eighty-four minutes for double billings). Code Red's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray edition is derived from a brand new 2K scan of the same materials, looking virtually spotless with rich colors and good detail, revealing what seemed in the previous transfer to be damage in a couple exterior shots as lens flare. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track is in fine condition, with the film's score as richly present as the film's gunplay.
Apart from a new "trivia mode" featurette with Katarina Leigh Waters introducing MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS and highlighting notable credits of the cast, the other extras have been carried over from the DVD. Moderators Bill Olsen (of Code Red) and filmmaker Scott Spiegel (THE INTRUDER) host Williamson who distinguishes his films from Blaxploitation which he feels were more about "getting whitey" while his characters are less discerning about the race of the bad guys. He discusses his work with cinematographer Caramico, shooting without permits, casting "actors" off the street for bit parts, and points out various onscreen participants like Gould's PR guy at the hot dog stand, western actor James Brown (TARGETS) – "the white Jim Brown" – and Leon Isaac Kennedy (who Spiegel recalls hired him to write a treatment for an action film pre-PENITENTIARY). We learn that McDowall was cast because he shared an agent with Williamson, and that Gould granted him a free half-hour to film his scenes. They also discuss how the film differs from Williamson's others in terms of approach to characters. Olsen points out that the title on the negative canisters was PEACE IS HELL, the original shooting title. There is mention of an interview with Kennedy, but no such featurette appeared on the original DVD or this Blu-ray. Williamson also appears onscreen for an interview (19:10) on MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS in which he discusses how he moved from football to acting, getting a role in TELL ME THAT YOU LOVE ME, JUNIE MOON through director Otto Preminger's brother Ivan who was a producer on M*A*S*H, and his desire as an actor/director to make films for little money that could still compete with the majors in the same theatrical venues. The disc also includes the film's trailer (1:43). The Blu-ray is limited and available directly from Code Red's Big Cartel page. (Eric Cotenas)
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