Universal Home Video

Cashing in on the long-running Soul Cinema series from MGM, Universal has dipped into its vaults to release three blaxploitation flicks of varying quality. All three discs have been digitally remastered and are presented in their original aspect ratios of 1.85:1 with anamorphic enhancement. They all look quite beautiful, with faint sheets of grain and a few blemishes being the only defects which don't distract from the films themselves (TRICK BABY shows print damage in a few shots, but not overly noticeable). None of the discs have any extras, which is not surprising since Universal is one of the only remaining major DVD companies that has yet to grasp the importance of the format. Following are reviews for the three films in question:

Director: Gilbert Moses III

Sesame Street's Roscoe Orman stars as Willie Dynamite, a flashy pimp who strives to be the #1 hustler in the city, sending his girls out to entice rich businessmen and horny tourists like a general sending his troops to war! His latest #1 lady, Passion (gorgeous Joyce Walker), is busted and thrown into the clink, where she is approached by retired whore-turned-social worker Cora (Diana Sands) who tries to convince her to turn her life around. This doesn't go well with Willie, who has enough to worry about when the top pimps of the city want to keep him restricted to one area so they can take over control of the sex industry. Taking a good long look at his life, Willie must decide whether to continue existing in decadence or clean up his act.

In comparison to the more popular pimpsploitation pics of the decade (THE MACK, SUPERFLY), WILLIE DYNAMITE comes up short in the sex and violence department. The R rating is strictly for language and drug use, with no nudity (surprising considering the theme) and no bloodshed. But the lack of exploitation elements means there is plenty of room for a story and solid performances by the leads. Those who remember Roscoe Orman as the jovial 'Gordon' on "Sesame Street" will sit stunned, mouth agape, as he prances around in the most garish pimp clothes ever seen, smacking his bitches and ranting about his desire to be #1. Considering the lack of female nudity in the film, it's even more surprising to see Roscoe in a pair of tight, bright red underwear briefs! Why oh why wasn't Roscoe Orman interviewed for this disc?! It would be amazing to hear his thoughts on the character and doing such a daring role before becoming synonymous with children’s' television! Sadly, WILLIE DYNAMITE was released after leading lady Diana Sands' early death of cancer in 1973. She is very good as a streetwise woman who fights to ensure that more innocent young girls don't place their lives in the hands of a pimp. Sands is tough and to the point, with great dialogue to help make her character a memorable one. Her prosecutor boyfriend is played by the late Thalmus Rasulala, who appeared in a number of blaxploitation films, including BLACULA, COOL BREEZE, BUCKTOWN and FRIDAY FOSTER. Stunning Joyce Walker would only make a handful of films, including a bit part in SHAFT'S BIG SCORE, and her "introducing" credit here unfortunately didn't invite more offers for work.

Exploitation film buffs will go ga-ga over the girls who make up Willie's stable: red-haired vixen Judy Brown (THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, THE MANHANDLERS), harsh-faced Juanita Brown (CAGED HEAT!, BLACK STARLET), blonde giant Mary Wilcox (LOVE ME DEADLY) and black model-turned-Carrie Nation Marcia McBroom (BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS), with Norma Donaldson (ACROSS 110TH STREET) as the #1 lady. The opening sequence, with the group of hookers descending upon a shriners' convention, worships these girls beautifully and kicks off the film like dynamite. Unfortunately, the ladies suffer from the Big Studio Syndrome: while they may have been given juicy parts in small pictures that frequented drive-ins, at their stay at big studios (like Universal) they were thrown walk-ons with no dialogue. Of the cult starlets, only Juanita Brown is given a line of dialogue, so followers of any of these beauties will be disappointed that they're merely here for visual appeal. Appearing uncredited as a rival prostitute who gets into a catfight with Norma Donaldson is Leslie McRae, the drop dead gorgeous model from the films of Ted V. Mikels (GIRL IN GOLD BOOTS, BLOOD ORGY OF THE SHE DEVILS), COFFY and DEATH RACE 2000.

Directors: Henry Levin & David Lowell Rich

Jefferson Bolt (Fred "The Hammer" Williamson) is a professional courier who's thrown in jail on a false murder charge, but bailed out by the mysterious British gent who had him set up in the first place. Bolt is assigned to deliver a briefcase with a million dollars to a contact in Mexico City and in exchange, the murder charge will be dropped. However, after beating his contacts to a bloody pulp in L.A. after they try to change his delivery plans, he drives to Vegas to visit an old friend, who tells him the bills are fake and he's being set up. So it's back to Hong Kong to settle the score.

Following his leading man debut in HAMMER (1972), Fred Williamson became the hottest blaxploitation star of the 1970s. This is one of his most obscure films, never receiving an official home video release until a few years ago. Contrary to popular belief, THAT MAN BOLT is not a blaxploitation version of a Bond film. The name "Jefferson Bolt," the foreign villains and the female love interest are similar to the famous franchise, and so is the convoluted plot, but this is a stranger mix of martial arts, international spy intrigue and blaxploitation thrills. Aside from the hard-to-follow storyline, Williamson beats up three guys in an L.A. airport bathroom, blows up a warehouse of Chinese fireworks and invents his own catchphrase by saying "Charming" when his suits are affected by the violence. But at almost two hours, THAT MAN BOLT is too long and complicated to be of any interest to those who aren't Williamson completists. Interesting note: the same year THAT MAN BOLT was shot, Williamson did a nude layout in Playgirl magazine. Cult actress alert: Teresa Graves ("Christie Love"!) is given a thankless role as Samantha Nightingale, a Las Vegas nightclub singer who sings two songs (including a cover of "She's a Lady"), goes back to Bolt's room and is shot by an assassin during their throes of passion. Boo!! The late Graves had a magnetic on-screen personality, so it would have been great for her to kick some ass here, but it's roles like these that led her to drop out of show business to find God. It's too bad that the film couldn't be redeemed with a Fred Williamson interview or commentary on this disc, as he did with the not-so-great ONE DOWN, TWO TO GO.

Director: Larry Yust

Wise old black conman "Blue" Howard and his young white protégé "Folks" O'Brien have it made. For years, they've been scamming money out of a variety of "marks" through false diamond sales, real estate scams and other well-planned cons perpetrated on the streets of Philadelphia. Just as "Folks" decides to retire from the con artist routine, he devises a clever scheme to lure $90,000 out of a group of racist bigwigs which would make for the perfect last sting. But the past comes back to bite them when their latest mark suffers a fatal heart attack...and his son turns out to be the biggest, meanest mobster in town. And not only is he after them, but a crooked cop is blackmailing them for a cut of their latest con.

Let's get one thing straight: TRICK BABY is not an exploitation film. It's a brilliant big screen adaptation of a novel by Iceberg Slim; think THE STING set in the mean streets of Philadelphia with more intense performances and David Mamet-style dialogue. The film grabs you from the first few minutes and keeps your attention throughout. The late Mel Stewart is great as the determined, grizzled "Blue." He has a young wife who's cheating on him and has spent his whole life looking for the perfect con, but when it's right in front of him, he's forced to choose between staying alive or pulling off the scam of his life. Kiel Martin ("Hill Street Blues") is equally impressive as half-white "Folks." He's so good, in fact, that the viewer can almost see the wheels in his mind turning as he lures in his marks with every word he says. An interesting cast member is Vernee Watson-Johnson, who plays Blue's less-than-faithful wife. She's pretty good here in the few scenes she appears in, and her career includes voiceovers for Hanna-Barbera cartoons (including "Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels"!), soap operas, video games and even recent flicks like the abysmal CHRISTMAS WITH THE CRANKS! Beverly Ballard contributes some uncomfortable nudity in a motel room as the love interest of Folks.

Much like Blue Underground's release of BONE in a group of Larry Cohen discs, TRICK BABY is the Soul Showcase title which most cult audiences won't pick up because it doesn't feature any familiar faces or an exploitation plotline. But it's a film which will invite more revisits than the other two discs, with gritty on-location photography, believable and sympathetic characters and a storyline which still stands up today with plenty of double-crosses and twists and turns. Larry Yust's crime drama is a film which deserves better recognition today, and it will hopefully be rediscovered for a receptive audience with this DVD release. (Casey Scott)