Standing six-foot-two, the beautiful former model Tamara Dobson was Warner Brothers’ answer to Pam Grier. The first female action star, Grier was killing it at the box office with hits like COFFY and FOXY BROWN, and Warners’ cast the Amazonian Dobson in the title role of CLEOPATRA JONES (1973). While Dobson made a foxy badass mama in the role, she wasn’t a very good actress. Which is alright in the world of action films, as long as the violence comes fast and hard, and CLEOPATRA JONES delivers in that department.
Our girl Cleo is a special government agent in Turkey helping to wipe out some large poppy fields (“Thirty million worth of shit”, says Cleo). This causes drug smuggling crime boss Mommy to freak out and seek revenge. Mommy is played by Shelley Winters in one of her patented over the top roles, wearing a series of bad wigs and screeching at the top of her lungs. Mommy sics her goons on Cleo’s pet charity, a rehab for addicts run by her boyfriend. When Cleo gets back stateside, there’s hell to pay as she takes down Mommy’s gang of cutthroats with the aid of her street friends.
There’s plenty of car chases, kung-fu fighting, and close calls here, along with plenty of familiar faces. Antonio Fargas plays Mommy’s rival Doodlebug, a flashy dresser looking to cut in on her turf. Bernie Casey is Cleo’s love interest, Brenda Sykes a hooker, Bill McKinney as a corrupt cop, and Esther (GOOD TIMES) Rolle as a diner owner whose two sons, Malcom and Melvin, are kung-fu experts that help Cleo take down Mommy and her thugs. Even SOUL TRAIN impresario Don Cornelius makes a cameo appearance. CLEOPATRA JONES didn’t cover any new ground in the Blaxploitation field, but it did well enough at the box office to warrant a sequel two years later.
1975’s CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD came next, and it’s one of the rare instances where I liked the sequel better than the original. This time around, Cleo’s in Hong Kong up against the villainous Dragon Lady, played by a spectacular looking Stella Stevens as a lesbian drug queen. Norman Fell is Stanley, Cleo’s liason/agent-in-charge, who warns Cleo to tow the line. Maalcom and Melvin are back, but this time they’re more of comic relief than kick-ass kung-fu fighters. The action’s handled by Dobson and her co-star Ni Tien (billed here as Tanny), playing a private eye who’s more than a match for Cleo. Hong Kong cinema legend Run Run Shaw is credited as co-producer, and he definitely knew his chop-socky action flicks (FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH, MAN OF IRON, LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES). CASINO OF GOLD is more a traditional action flick than just another funky Blaxploitationer, and could’ve continued as a James Bond-like series, with Dobson much better suited to the glamorous international spy role than street chick. But box office returns were poor for this entry, and Warners pulled the plug on the Cleopatra Jones series.
Tamara Dobson’s film career went south after that. Her few remaining credits included a stint on the Saturday morning sci-fi show JASON OF STAR COMMAND, featuring STAR TREK’s James Doohan and the great Sid Haig as the cosmic bad guy. She died of MS in her hometown of Baltimore in 2006 at age 59, leaving behind her two CLEOPATRA JONES films as her legacy. Both are fun to watch, with CASINO OF GOLD especially as a precursor to what could have been. They’re definitely worth rediscovering for lovers of action and Blaxploitation movies. Thanks for the memories, Cleo.