Monday, July 1, 2013

R.I.P.: Jim "The Dragon" Kelly – Part I

Jim "The Dragon" Kelly
May 5, 1946 - June 29, 2013
Handsome, ass-kicking Afro-American martial artist of questionable thespian talents who made some fun movies during his quick rise and fall in Blaxploitation films of the 1970s. Died of cancer at the age of 67.

(1972, dir. Hugh A. Robertson)

Jerry Butler & Jerry Peters — Melinda (Title Theme):
Jim Kelly makes his film debut as a martial arts instructor who lends a hand to the film's main character. The plot of this hard-to-find film, according to Black Classic Movies: "Melinda is a murder mystery starring Calvin Lockhart (The Beast Must Die [1974 / trailer]) who plays a popular and conceited disc jockey named Frankie Parker. When he meets a beautiful woman named Melinda (Vonette McGee of Blacula [1972 / trailer] and The Great Silence [1968 / Italian trailer]), he falls in love. But tragically, Melinda is killed and left in his apartment. Why? As he tries to find out the reason for Melinda's murder, Parker gets the help of his former girlfriend, Terry Davis (Rosalind Cash of Tales from the Hood [1995 / trailer], Omega Man [1971 / trailer],  Death Spa [1989 / trailer], The Offspring [1987 / trailer], which also features the great Susan Tyrrell, and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde [1976 / trailer]) who still has feelings for him." Blaxploitation Pride says: "Through this violent action film I saw a lot of the characters emotions, the fear, the struggle, the anger, the courage, and the love and romance. At the end I felt good inside. I could identify with the characters who went through all that. To me this film has been overlooked and underrated. [...] I strongly recommend this film to anyone. Look past the color and the genre. [?!?] This is your kind of Black Film."
Lockhart picks up the beautiful Vonette McGee:

Enter the Dragon
(1973, dir. Robert Clouse)


The Bruce Lee film of all Bruce Lee films, and not just 'cause it was the last one he completed before dying, made at a time when you always knew that no matter how cool or tough the token black guy of the film is, he's still gonna die. (Times really haven't changed all that much, if you get down to it.) The first Asian martial arts film produced by a major Hollywood studio (Warner Bros. in association with Golden Harvest and Lee's Concord Production Company), in 2004 it was finally deemed "culturally significant" in the US is now preserved in the National Film Registry. Look for a very young Jackie Chan: he gets it in the groin at one point from Su Lin (Angela Mao) and later, in the underground lair, Lee kills him by snapping his neck. TV Guide says: "If you have a yen for spectacular chopsocky action, this is as good a flick to start with as any. The legendary Bruce Lee is showcased in his most lavish adventure — [...] a low-rent James Bond thriller crossed with Fu Manchu. The plot barely rates relating but here goes: Lee (Bruce Lee) is recruited by a government agent, Braithwaite (Geoffrey Weeks), to enter a martial arts contest on the island fortress of Han (Kien Shih of A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon [1989 / trailer]), a particularly vicious chap with a nasty iron claw who is believed to be involved in drug smuggling and prostitution. Lee agrees because he knows that Han's right-hand man, Oharra (Robert Wall), is responsible for his sister's death (she committed suicide rather than be raped by him). On the island he meets Roper (John Saxon of A Nightmare on Elm Street [1984 / trailer], Blood Beach [1980 / trailer], Cannibal Apocalypse [1980 / trailer] and Black Christmas [1974 / trailer] — among many an other great films) and Williams (Jim Kelly), ex-army buddies from the US, on the run, respectively, from the mob and the law. [...] But enough plot... let it suffice to say that the only compelling reason to sit through this film is to see the greatest martial arts star of all time. [...] Nobody shows much evidence of acting ability, and the script is full of holes. Nonstop action is what these films are about, and that's what you get here." Director Robert Clouse (March 6, 1928 – February 4, 1997), who was deaf, made many a fun film — good, bad and craptastic — including The Pack (1977 / trailer), featuring one of our favorite (dead) character actors, R.G. Armstrong
 The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) Bruce Lee (Enter the Dragon) Parody:

Black Belt Jones
(1974, dir. Robert Clouse)
 Main title:
Plot as explained by 10K Bullets: "In order to make a bundle in property deals the mafia want to have Pop's Karate studio and they call Pinky (Malik Carter, the narrator of Pervert! [2005 / trailer]) and his gang to get them to make Pop (Scatman Crothers of Detroit 9000 [1973 / trailer], Truck Turner [1974 / trailer], Friday Foster [1975 / trailer] and The Shining [1980 / trailer]) give it up. First efforts from Pinky prove fruitless as his gang has its ass kicked but when Pinky corners Pop at a shady card game, Pop is killed. Determined to track down his killers, Black Belt Jones (Kelly) starts to fight Pinky and puts his gang in the frame for a raid on the Mafia. With the help of Pop's high-kicking daughter, Sydney (Gloria Hendry of Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings [1994 / trailer], Live and Let Die [1974 / trailer] and Savage Sisters [1974 / trailer]), Jones has to face off against Pinky and the Mafia in a carwash, butt-whupping finale." Clouse's follow-up film to Enter the Dragon, a chopsocky Blaxploitation vehicle for Jim Jones, does not share the same exalted reputation as the preceding Lee classic, but it is nevertheless a lot of fun in a really good and enjoyably bad way (though it is far from the worst Kelly was eventually to do). The NY Times points out: "[Black Belt Jones] is as basically silly as many of the previous, similarly action-packed adventures it imitates and is as obvious as a karate chop. A minor change in the norm should be noted, however. In this case, Black Belt Jones [...] is ably assisted by Gloria Hendry, a photogenic soul sister who is just as roughly efficient as her tough, stoic partner in dispatching squads of white or black bad guys. [...] Of course, the fearless team, assisted by the school's students and, unexpectedly, a covey of pretty trampoline experts, take the opposition in stride and also manage to make it romantically. But the succession of clashes and explicit street language tend to become repetitious and as unwittingly comic as the cast's largely mechanical performances."

Three the Hard Way
(1974, dir. Gordon Parks Jr.)
Director Gordon Parks Jr., the son of director Gordon Parks (Shaft [1971 / trailer] and The Super Cops [1974 / title track], had his career cut short on 3 April 1979 when he died in a plane crash in Kenya at the age of 45; his other three films — all made for inner-city audiences — are the classic Super Fly (1972 / trailer), the rare Blaxploitation take on Bonnie & Clyde (1967 / trailer), Thomasine & Bushrod (1974), and the Romeo and Juliet / West Side Story amalgamation, Aaron Loves Angela (1975). The plot of Three the Hard Way, which many consider one of the classic action movies of the Blaxploitation genre, as supplied by All Movie: "The 'three' alluded to in the title are played by Jim Brown (of 100 Rifles [1969 / trailer] and Mars Attacks! [1996 / trailer]), Fred Williamson (of From Dusk Till Dawn [1996 / trailer], The Legend of Nigger Charley [1972 / trailer], 1990: The Bronx Warriors [1982 / trailer] and tons more) and Jim Kelly. Letting their fists do all the talking, the hard-nosed trio takes on a neo-fascist organization. It is the avowed purpose of this all-white hate group to 'cleanse' Los Angeles, Detroit and Washington DC of all blacks. To do this, they plan to poison the drinking water with a secret formula that affects only African Americans." (The plot was later satirized in both Undercover Brother [2002 / trailer], in which the Man want to rob the soul from the brothers of the US with a similar poison, and Black Dynamite [2009 / trailer], in which malt liquor has ingredients that will shrink the genitals of Afro Americans.) Cinemademerde says that Three the Hard Way "is definitely going to put a smile on your face. One, it's Blaxploitation, with not one, not two, but THREE big icons of the genre teaming up to kick ass while wearing awesome snug leather outfits. Two, it's completely silly, with a big, ridiculous, over-the-top plot that you don't have to worry too much about following. But finally, what really makes it special, is the inclusion of so many small little exciting surprises, starting with the sudden crowbar to the guard's face and just going from there. Each action scene just has a little unexpected element that makes it a little bit special, and sets this movie apart. It's ludicrous and over-the-top awesome, putting showing you a good time ahead of making any sense, which is what I call a gracious host." The babes below also appear long enough to take off their tops and maim and torture — truth be told, sorely underused and a total mystery, they themselves easily deserved a film all of their own. Wikipedia points out that the movie not only features "the three biggest black action stars of the 1970s, in their first movie together" but that Three the Hard Way is "an action-packed spectacle filled with machismo, gunplay, fight scenes, nudity, and black pride. This film had a higher budget and more special effects than previous Blaxploitation movies with over 20 cars being exploded. [...] With limited nudity, less profanity, and glorified characters such as a record executive, businessman, and martial artist, Parks' film showed black heroes in a new light. The black star could take on many of the virtues that white America also looked upon favorably."
The Impressions — Soundtrack to Three the Hard Way:

Golden Needles
(1974, dir. Robert Clouse)
Director Robert Clouse pulled Jim Kelly in for another film, this time around in what is little more than a guest  appearance as the token Black kick-ass buddy in a Joe Don Baker vehicle (hard to believe that Baker ever actually had vehicles but, yes, for awhile Baker was a name draw for action fans). Comeuppance, which complains that "Jim Kelly is painfully underused here", explains the film: "There is a statue that everyone is after, because inside it are the golden needles — acupuncture needles that, if placed in exactly the right spots on the body, can turn any man into a superman (according to the poster's tagline, they can rule the world). Since Felicity (Elizabeth Ashley of Vampire's Kiss [1988 / trailer] and Windows [1980 / trailer]) isn’t willing to buy it for 250,000 dollars, she hires Dan (Baker), an adventurer based out of Hong Kong, to get it for her. He agrees, and brings on board his friend Jeff (Kelly) to help him out. But it’s not going to be easy, because everyone from Lin Toa (Roy Chiao) to eccentric millionaire Winters (Burgess Meredith of Torture Garden [1967 / trailer], The Manitou [1978 / trailer] and much more) is hot on the trail of this mysterious statue as well. Every trick in the book is used to obtain the statue, including inexplicable teams of guys in gold protective suits with flamethrowers torching where they think it is. Will Dan and Jeff prevail?" An aged Ann Southern (of Lady in a Cage [1964 / trailer]) is on hand, looking camp until she gets tortured. Shot on location in Hong Kong, the movie was a flop and is virtually forgotten today, though it did actually get a relatively recent (2011) DVD release. DVD Drive-In, while complaining that "the martial arts aspect of Golden Needles is rather weak and sporadic", nevertheless likes the film: "While Golden Needles is not Clouse's best work, the results are still enjoyable, especially if you like your violent, PG-rated action films with exotic locations and headshaking appearances by veteran Hollywood stars to pump up the marquee value. The plot is at least different in that what's being sought after and what's causing all the casualties is not your typical loot or drug cargo, making this a sort of update of The Maltese Falcon (1941 / trailer) for the grindhouse crowd."

Take a Hard Ride
(1975, dir. Antonio Margheriti as "Anthony M Dawson")
Jim Kelly takes part in this Euro Blaxploitation Western flick pretending to be a stateside Blaxploitation Western directed by the great Italian director Antonio Margheriti (using his Anglo-pseudonym  Anthony M Dawson); Margheriti is the director of (among many films) the great Cannibal Apocalypse (1980 / trailer), Seven Dead in the Cat's Eye (1973), And God Said to Cain (1970 / German trailer), Castle of Blood (1964 / trailer) and Horror Castle (1963 / trailer) — not to mention trash like Alien from the Deep (1989) and Killer Fish (1979 / trailer). The cast is killer: aside from Kelly and his Three the Hard Way mates Fred Williamson and Jim Brown, there's Lee Van Cleef, Barry Sullivan and Dana Andrews — not to mention the Italo starlet Catherine Spaak and cult character actors and forgotten names like Harry Carey Jr., Robert Donner and Ronald Howard. The cast alone makes this forgotten film worth seeing... but is the film any good? Well, DVD Drive-In thinks so, saying "this [is an] action-packed, money-hungry adventure. Highly recommended!" The plot, as according to 10K Bullets: "Pike (Brown) has given his word to take $86000 to Mexico and whilst on his way he comes across Tyree (Williamson), a gambler who makes clear he wants the money. They make a deal to fight once they get to Mexico but to protect each other whilst on the trail. Kiefer (Van Cleef), a bounty hunter, is on Pike's trail as is a corrupt marshal (Sullivan) and assorted bandits — racists, Mexicans and others. Pike and Tyree help a maiden in distress (Spaak) and her helper, Kashtok (Kelly), an American Indian. Together they travel through ambushes from all on their trail until they reach the Mexican border where Keifer has talked a band of Mexicans into one last ambush. Can the two survive against 40 Bandits and Kiefer?"
Although it may not have been apparent at the time, we here at A Wasted Life can't help but see this film here, in which Kelly, never the best at verbally emoting, is derogated to playing a mute character as indicative of the development of his career... Filmed on the Canary Islands — they are part of Spain, for those of you hazy in geography — the highly American Western sounding soundtrack is from Jerry Goldsmith...
The Take a Hard Ride Suite, by Jerry Goldsmith:

One Down, Two to Go
(1976, dir. Fred Williamson)
So, what could be better than three top Afro-American action stars in a Blaxpliotation film? No, not a naked Pam Grier, but four top Afro-American action stars — Fred Williamson (seen here below stroking some white pussy for his Oct 1973 Playgirl photo shoot), Jim Brown and Jim Kelly are now joined by Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree. Or at least, in theory it should be better — but watch the scene below Williamson's centerfold to get an idea of what you get instead. (As Film Critic United says, with the emphasis on "should've": "A movie that should've been awesome and revered by those of us who live and die by this stuff.")
(Dig the music!) The narrative facts, as given by DVD Verdict: "Ralph (Roundtree) is a fight promoter who specializes in setting up karate bouts. For one event he makes a bet with a rival promoter for $400,000, and despite the flagrant cheating of their opponents, his fighters win (thanks to the tutelage of Chuck [Kelly], the macho, full-leather-body-suit-wearing coach). Unfortunately, Ralph's debtors are unwilling to pay up, and the powder keg is lit. The bad guys, all cracker-ass crackers with a few rednecks thrown in for good measure, mix it up with Ralph and Chuck. Bad move, suckas. Ralph and Chuck call in their old friends Cal (Williamson) and J (Brown). As the stretch Cadillac pulls up and the two enforcers calmly step out, well, the days are numbered for the punks on the other side. [...]"
To quote the Montreal Film Journal: "As you may have notice, there's not much story. The direction from Fred Williamson ain't very good either." One Down, Two to Go ain't imperative viewing...

Hot Potato
(1976, dir. Oscar Williams)
Who knows why the movie is called Hot Potato, but it was remade, not that well, five years later by Robert Clouse — without Kelly — as Force: Five (1981).
Trailer to Clouse's remake Force: Five (1981):
Of director Oscar Williams, over at imdb some guy by the name of Brant Jones says "Oscar Williams, a native of Bronx, NY, has been teaching intermediate film production at the University of Southern California for the past few years. As a student, I took his class in the fall semester of 1998. He has a passion for Japanese cinema, especially the films of Akira Kurosawa. Oscar is a knowledgeable filmmaker and, more importantly, a good teacher. His enthusiasm and love for the art of cinema is contagious, and I have found that I've learned a great deal from him." So it would seem that Williams is a better film teacher than filmmaker; he may have written two Blaxploitation classics in his day, Truck Turner (1974) and Black Belt Jones (1974), but his limited directorial output of four Blaxploitation movies is far from notable: both The Final Comedown (1972) and Five on the Black Hand Side (1973 / title track) are rough and uneven and badly dated, Death Drug (1978) is an unsung psychotronic anti-drug film classic with an unbelievably craptastic Philip Michael Thomas inevitably showing the world that he can't act, and this flick here, Hot Potato, while his best, is still one car wreck of a mess. As Beardy Freak says: "Holy Afros! What happened here?!"

Trailer to Oscar Williams's Five on the Black Hand Side (1973):
Shot in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Hot Potato is a semi-sequel to Black Belt Jones in that Kelly's character is called Jones and kicks ass, but never once is he called "Black Belt" — and, for that matter, the film is far less Blaxploitation than it is a chopsocky action comedy that happens to have a brother as the lead and leader. DVD Drive-in, which complains that "the film is all over the place and only mildly amusing", explains the plot: "The daughter (Judith Brown of Bloodeaters  [1980 / trailer], Psychic Killer [1975 / trailer], International Assassin [1976 / trailer], The Manhandlers [1975 / trailer], Women in Cages [1971 / trailer] and The Big Doll House [1971 / trailer]) 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 of Kung Fu Cannibals [1982 / trailer]), a local policewoman (Irene Tsu of How to Stuff a Wild Bikini [1965 / trailer] and Women of the Prehistoric Planet [1966 / trailer]) and an overweight buffoon named Rhino (the late great George Memmoli, of Swap Meet [1979 / trailer], The Farmer [1977 / trailer] and Phantom of the Paradise [1974 / trailer]). 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." Alex in Wonderland says: "Awful beyond belief. [...] This bunch of bumbling idiots are America's finest? Oh dear god... The movie box promises to deliver punches AND punch lines, which it does — just very, very poorly. Few things are worse than unfunny comedy. The fighting is also pretty shabby, and made worse by the absurd comedic tone. A real endurance test, even for Jim Kelly fans (although his afro is in top form)." The score of the movie, which borrows liberally from the original score of Black Belt Jones by Luchi De Jesus, is from the unknown future priest Christopher Trussell, whose only other filmic credit that we could find is for the score to the 1967 public domain horror flick Night Fright, directed by James A Sullivan, the editor of the infamous movie, Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966 / trailer / full film).
James A Sullivan's Night Fright (1967) — starring John Agar:

Go here for Part II.

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