Monday, May 18, 2009

Cleopatra Jones (USA, 1973)

Directed by Jack Starrett, the man who gave us such masterpieces as that infamous bikers-in-Vietnam sleaze classic The Losers (1970) and the much over-praised Peter Fonda & Warren Oates turkey Race with the Devil (1975/trailer), and who supplemented his income by acting in films as diverse as the entertaining First Blood (1982/trailer) and monstrously bad Nightwish (1989). Cleopatra Jones is Jack Starrett’s second dive into the realm of Blaxploitation, following fast on the heels of his 1972 film Slaughter (trailer), and is a silly, enjoyably laughable piece of ghetto-oriented celluloid, with heroine Tamara Dobson wearing as many fabulous fashion statements as the story has holes.
Like manyof the films of the genre at the time, it is a relatively mundane film, miles away in quality and intention from such masterpieces as Sweet Sweetback (1971/trailer), but although lacking the more exploitive aspects of other Black Babe films like Coffy (1973), Cleopatra Jones is nonetheless good for more than just a rainy afternoon. The inspiration of the more camp aspects of the James Bond films is easy to be seen in this movie—an interesting aspect when one considers that the very series that so inspired this movie ended up appropriating many aspects of Blaxpliotation in its 1973 entry, Live and Let Die. Much like all the campy James Bond films starring Roger Moore, by today’s standards both the violence and the sex in Cleopatra Jones is Saturday morning television level.

Taller than Abraham Lincoln but much better looking, Dobson plays an ass-kicking, drug-fighting special government agent who tools around Los Angeles in a customized Corvette complete with a secret weapons depot built into its door. Shelley Winters, a few pounds lighter from her Poseidon Adventure (1972) measurements, does another Oscar-deserving performance as Mommy, the overweight lesbian crime boss determined to put Cleo out of business, while Antonio Fargas, best remembered as Huggy Bear on the original TV version of Starsky & Hutch, does an entertaining turn as the laughably vain Doodlebug, a turncoat minion of Mommy, who decides it is time to become self-employed. Mommy, after losing a 30 million dollar poppy harvest in Turkey due to Cleo’s intervention, arranges a fixed bust at Cleo’s personal pet project, a Drug Rehabilitation Center run by her heartthrob. The rest of the movie has Cleo cruising through town decked out in furs (in L.A.!) as she tries to save the drug center, surviving numerous hit attempts, smiling as she knocks off one hood after the other without so much as breaking a fingernail or ripping a seam. The big showdown in a car wrecking yard is not all that exciting, but as always, Dobson does look fantastic when kicking butt.
Despite her highly individual appearance—or perhaps because of it—Tamara Dobson, a former model, never had much of a career in or out of the Blaxploitation genre. She followed this film two years later with a sequel, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold, which featured Stella Stevens as the Bad Bitch of the Season, and then had a part in Norman Is That You (1976) before disappearing into that never-never land of forgotten faces. She resurfaced again (along with Stella Stevens) in one of Madeleine Stowe’s dark secrets of the past, an unbelievably lame 1984 TV film, Amazons, in which a variety of Hot Babes set out to conquer the USA, before she once again sank into that bog of oblivion. She was probably still awaiting a call from Tarentino when she died of pneumonia and multiple sclerosis on 2 October 2006 in Baltimore, Maryland.

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