Movie Review: Black Belt Jones

Posted: June 27, 2010 in Movie Review, Reviews
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I’d just like to point out there was no way for me not to get that look on his face, the screen freezes there for the entire time the title is up.

Black Belt Jones (1974 Warner Bros Dir. Robert Clouse)

Somehow this movie landed on spot #38 in something called The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made. We know how I feel about Worst Movie Ever lists though, right? The documentary must be pretty stupid, because this movie does not belong on a list of “Worst Movies Evar” at all. In fact, this is actually a really great movie. Who ever put it on the worst ever list for that movie was an idiot. I intend to tell you that this is actually a great movie, a hilarious movie, and I’m not convinced that the comedy is all completely unintentional. This is not “So bad it’s good”, but rather “This is just good.” Let’s dive on in and I’ll show you.

Death by bungee cord!

We begin with the sort of music you want from a mid-70s action movie. All bongo drums and horns playing that very ‘70s action music. Think the guy you get when Lalo Schifrin is out of your price range. It’s not a bad job, but it does sound like they asked Dennis Coffey to give them something that sounded Shifrinesque. Since I’ve mentioned it once, we might as well deal with it now, this isn’t a big budget movie. However, it is a Warner Brothers movie so there was actually some production value here. They use a lot of sets, a lot of outdoor areas that Warner already owned, as well as some of the other things that you used to get when big studios had a more rigid system of production. The greater artistic freedom was good for actors and directors, but it came at a cost for low budget affairs like this one. Still, this being a studio-backed movie, it’s better than a lot of the blaxploitation movies out there. Take that as you will, but understand that there are actual professionals behind the camera here, even if the professionalism of those in front might be in question.

His action face!

We start with some mafia guys doing mafia stuff and OH MY WORD! That guy is SOOOO dubbed in. I mean, entirely replacing a guy’s dialogue is one thing, but you could at least pretend he was there and not just lay a clean track of dialogue that was obviously spoken into a mic that’s 18 inches away when everyone else had their stuff recorded on a boom mic over head. And then the baddies strangle a guy with a bungee cord. Again, why? So many things would have worked, why a bungee cord? If I keep asking these questions, it’s going to be a long review. So let’s do that. I like ‘em long! Anyway, the guy is a plant from… someone. I think it’s the FBI, but I’m pretty sure they never actually say. I’ll let you know if they do. So the agents talk and decide to call on Black Belt, because he’s the only one that can get into the winery and get the photos the other plant was supposed to get. Was I not paying attention, or did they just never state what the photos were supposed to be of? A bigger and more important questions might be “How important is that to the plot? but I don’t like asking those questions because they only lead to trouble.

One of the few actual urban scenes in the movie.

We meet our hero as… some guys decide to try and kill… some other guy, and he stops them. I’m not being silly here, these people are never identified and besides being a group for Black Belt to fight with (Seriously, that’s his name) they have no affiliation that I can see within the movie. However, they do give him some great theme music to fight to so it’s less important. The problem is that while Jim Kelly is a good fighter, some of the other guys aren’t and good fight choreography actually rests more on the guy who’s reacting to the hit than it does the guy delivering it. The guys in the opening scene are pretty good, but later we’ll get bad fighting. So after saving… the guy he saved, Black Belt (I’m going to call him BB from now on if you don’t mind) just drives off and leaves the situation to be explained by other people. He doesn’t even so much as ask the… guy if he’s okay. After all, he’s a busy guy. He’s got important work to do!

Why would my horoscope say to avoid psychic children and their insane fathers?

That important works entails… not doing work. Yeah, he tells the…feds, I guess, that he doesn’t want to go into the winery from the opening scene because it’s a fortress. They discuss how the place is owned by the bad guy, a mafia Don named Steffano, and he’s in good with governors and senators. So, what you’ve got is a some photos, possibly of a well connected Italian gangster, being kept at some winery or other, and the only man that The Man thinks can get in there is a martial artist who calls him self Black Belt Jones. Have you got that? I sure hope so because it sounds a little silly when I explain it to someone else. Part of the problem with these reviews is that often I obsess about things that probably take you longer to read than it takes for them to say in the movie. It’s just that I want you to understand what’s going on in this movie.

He’s laughing because he can still wear this outfit today in broad daylight.

See, Don Steffano has a plan… and a mullet. Sorry, can’t get over this guy’s hair. He’s supposed to be the chief baddie in this movie and I just keep thinking that he’s going to try and get college girls to disco dance towards his corvette or something. He looks like that sort of guy, you know? The plan is one of those land grab stories you see from time to time. He wants to grab a piece of land that will make him a mint in a year or two when some big project is announced. Guess who owns that patch of land, go o, you’ll never get it. If you said it was Black Belt Jones then you are wrong! It belongs to Scat Man Crothers’ character Papa Byrd. However, Papa Byrd is the man that taught Black Belt Jones everything he knows about Karate. At least I think so. It’s pretty clear that Papa Byrd is meant to be a father figure for the guys in the dojo. Every scene with Scatman is electric and funny. He’s played as an unreliable gambler rather than a karate master, but it works. You don’t need to see him teaching the class, because he’s just someone you need to love a little and you do love him a little. It’s in loving him a little that we meet the secondary baddie in the movie.

The other two could only stand in shock as Big Tuna demonstrated his “Choir Boy” technique.

See a lot of your Blaxploitation movies worked like this. You had a street level baddie, and he was usually black and then you had a white guy who was the baddie behind everything. Normally though, in my recollection, you’d met the street guy first and worked your way up to the rich white man who was behind the whole thing. This time you meet Don Mullet first and then the street baddie, a crime boss known as Pinky. We first meet Pinky when some militants decide to demand at gun point that he stop selling drugs to the community. While this line came out Syd and I both parroted the line from Black Dynamite “But I sell drugs to the community.” and there was just a pause just long enough for us to say it too. AWESOME MOVIE! Pinky and his band get the drop on the militants and are about to perform some impromptu dental surgery with a pool stick and the three ball when the over dubbed Italian shows up. Pinky calls him Big Tuna and I can’t decide whether to call him that or the over-dubbed Italian. Nah, I’ll call him Tuna. Tuna tells Pinky that they think he’s been skimming from them and instead of killing him, they think he should get Papa Byrd to get them to give up his building. Pinky announces that Papa Byrd owes him a thousand dollars and thus our plot is set in motion as Pinky decides to go roust Papa Byrd.

Hmm, what? No, the mullet helps me with SCIENCE!

There is a hilarious line when one of the students tries to stop Pinky by telling him that he needs to take off his shoes before crossing the mat. This is pretty much standard practice for all dojos everywhere. It’s a form of respect and you’re not supposed to walk around on gym mats with your shoes anyway. The funny bit is that Pinky responds with “Boy, don’t start no communist shit.” and shoves the guy to the floor. I love that everything the guy doesn’t like is communist. It doesn’t matter though because Papa Byrd comes out and the denizens of the school clean the gangsters’ clocks. I was thinking when they started that rousting a karate school while class was in session was probably a bad idea in the making. The point is that they drive Pinky and company away with their Mad Skillz, which is sort of cool. And then we get girls on a trampoline.

Let’s face it, he had to be evil. Anyone who looks that much like a douche can never be a good guy.

Why these girls are bouncing on a trampoline and why BB is watching is anyone guess at this point. Thing is, even after you know what this is leading to, you will still wonder if there was any point to this. Maybe, and follow me on this, maybe the point was to have girls jumping around on a trampoline for the purpose of watching boobs bounce. Now, that’s cynical, but I would like to suggest that it might also be accurate. Anyway, BB gets a phone call and it’s very clear that the voice on the other line was inserted later. He was told to just nod, and say a few lines without anyone timing him. As a result, he talks over the lines of the guy on the other end of the phone a couple of times during the short conversation. It doesn’t matter much, because Belt just rushes over just in time to have missed Papa Byrd and discusses Pinky with his buddy.

What do you mean? These suits are classics.

This leads into a neat action scene where Pinky and his gang come late at night, BB’s buddy Toppy turns the lights on for three seconds and then turns them off for a few seconds. BB then proceeds to smack the gangsters around and in the dark informs them that he’s Batman. Yup! And I quote… “Who hit me?” response in an unnaturally deep voice “Batman, motherfucker.” After getting the crap kicked out of them, Pinky and gang decide to take on Papa Byrd instead. Pink shows him the IOU where he’s put an extra one in making the slip eleven thousand rather than one. He tells Papa to just give up the school and they’ll call it even. Papa tells him to get lost and Pinky don’t take to kindly to that. Unfortunately they decide to beat him up and hit him too hard, killing him. So now it’s a tale of vengeance. At the funeral, I am pulled from the gospel singers when I see that his class is doing karate poses to honor him. We were also going to be serious for a moment, but there are the guys doing karate poses.

If I wear these glasses, no one will know I’m the white guy in this movie. No, wait. That’s Superman, isn’t it?

So anywayy, Papa Byrd’s daughter, Sydney shows up and asks who killed her father. They guys try to sideline her instead of telling her anything so she goes to investigate on her own. While that’s going on, Pinky explains to Don Mullet his plan to bring in some tough guys from out of town to help him take out Black Belt Jones. I still can’t believe that’s really his name in the movie, but it is. They call him BB or Belt all the time, no one ever admits his name might be Steve or anything. Anyway, Sydney goes and checks out Pinky’s place and then shows how her own Mad Skillz by beating the crap out of his gang. This is either the third or fourth time this group is getting the crap kicked out of them by people with strong karate skills. One might hope they’ve got Blue Cross or something. Then there is some boring conversation, where people try to act at each other instead of with each other. Bad acting is bad, also there is some bad writing that makes it seem like people aren’t even on the same page of the script. BUT NEVER MIND THAT!

Yeah, that’s everything people think about Italians Post-Godfather, isn’t it?

Pinky & Company return to the school and this time, with the out of town tough guys, they win the fight. Even some of Pinky’s gang that got the crap kicked out of them before are suddenly good fighters. Now Pinky claims the IOU is for forty-one thousand, having altered the slip a second time. He then claims that his place was damaged and that his guys had to go to the hospital after Sydney beat the crap out of them. He even explains “Man, we ain’t got no Blue Cross.” so I guess that’s some serious payments. After adding it all up, he claims he want 250K or the school building. To make sure that everyone at the school pays up, they kidnap one of the kids. This leads to a bit of exposition and some comedy with Pinky doing an impromptu poetry slam.

“You suppose we’ll regret these outfits in 20 years?”
“No way man, these will NEVER go out of style.”

No we lead to one of the sillier bits in the movie. See, BB has a plan to get the money, save Pinky and do the job for the government guys. In involves the white girls on the trampoline from earlier and… showing them how to work a Polaroid camera. One of the simpler cameras on the planet, and he needs to explain it to this girl. I think they’re just trying to show that a Polaroid camera is part of the plan, but still. So a few more training scenes go by, in what might be the shortest training montage ever and they go to do the raid. They dress in all black, and then sensibly execute their plan at about 1:30 in the afternoon. Why wear all black if you’re going to do it at a time of day where that outfit would be more obvious, not less? I mean if they did it in the dead of nigh that might make some sense. I can only guess it would have been too expensive. I don’t even want to explain the plan because it’s so silly, but I’ll try. They use a mini-trampoline to get a Polaroid of the grounds from an angle the security camera sees and then attach the photo to the camera to cover up their robbery of Don Mullet’s grounds. Because that’s how cameras work. A security camera with a focal length of 30 feet has the exact same focus if it’s aiming at something 18 inches away, right? That’s always been my understanding.

See, then I put this on the internet and you’re whole family knows what you’ve been doing. Unless you pay up that is.

Long story short, they steal Don Mullet’s money, kung-fu a bunch of his guys in the head and only get discovered when the picture in front of the security camera falls down. BB even gets to imitate Bruce Lee a little and put high pitched chicken noises into his fighting. However, they do get away with the money and the photos, so it’s not been wasted. Of course when they give the money to Pinky it turns out to be a double cross. However the cross is uncrossed by Sydney coming to BB’s rescue. A fight breaks out, which leads to another fight and this annoys Black Belt so much that he calls Don Mullet and tells him that Pinky is the one who stole his money. He then announces to his triumphant crew his intent to take them to McDonalds. This whole framing Pinky thing doesn’t last very long though, because when Pinky says he’s been set up they believe him. Granted his evidence is pretty strong since he demands “If Jelly jumps anywhere it’s gotta be down.” and having seen Jelly, he has a point.

Hat! I need a hat!

Now there is supposed to be a romance scene of the two leads frolicking, but it has a great scene. She’s teasing him, insulting his manhood and while doing that explains, “My cookie would kill you.” It’s a shame that Jane Austen never had one of the girls say “Oh Mr. Darcy, don’t you know my cookie would kill you?” Romance ain’t dead, but it’s on the ropes. Anyway, they frolic, which includes them smashing a hippie’s guitar, popping a balloon seller’s balloons and chasing a naked couple out of a tent. Then it’s implied that they, you know “Do it” before the baddies show up with the climax in their cars. A car chase ensues, which has everything except for a roadside fruit stand and two guys carrying a huge piece of plate glass. The chase ends at a massive carwash for garbage trucks. This leads to a wonderful scene where they over load the machine and a fight breaks out among the bubbles.

There comes a point where I don’t care how this shot came about, I’m just glad it did.

There had to have been a moment of clarity where Jim Kelly was standing there saying to himself “I’m a serious martial artist. I’ve won awards, I have my own dojo, I teach celebrities and I’ve starred in a movie with Bruce Lee. How did I end up doing karate knee deep in soapsuds?” I’m not sure how it came to pass, but I’m glad it did because this fight is awesome. It’s hilarious, the fighting isn’t half-bad, and even in my jaded, scene-it-all state I have to admit that the setting is original. The conveniently put all the baddies in a garbage truck ignoring the fact that they look like they’re putting people through the compactor function first. There has been a true evolution here as well. No longer is BB making Bruce Lee style chicken noises, he now seems to be doing Curly Howard’s “Woop woop woop” sounds. The movie ends with all the baddies in the truck and Black Belt and Sydney driving them off to jail. They basically take down everyone except for Don Mullet. I suppose he was being saved for the sequel that they never made.

The writer is just over there, just shoot him in the leg or something.

The bottom line on this one is that it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Even if on the Graffiti Bridge scale it only comes in at 14 degrees. It’s a good starring vehicle for Jim Kelly, who proves that he’s not a complete no-hoper, even if he’s not all that great. There are way worse movies you could watch in this vein though, way worse. This is pretty good if you’re going to watch it with some friends who want a good laugh at some silliness. Buy your own copy just for that reason. This was Kelly’s first starring role, and he proved interesting enough to get more. He was at the beginning of the black martial artist thing that lasted for a few years. I suspect that black men kept being interested in martial arts after the ‘70s ended, but there were less movies about black men being kung fu experts. At least as far as I know. I can’t think of another black star who was known for being good at Kung Fu until Wesley Snipes came along.

NOOOOO! People are going to be laughing at my suit for decades!

Official Score: 14 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

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