In all my years of watching movies, I’ve seen more than my share of stinkers. But nothing quite prepared me for the total ineptitude that is LADY STREET FIGHTER, starring the immortal Renee Harmon. This wretchedly made film features an incoherent script, horrific cinematography, murky sound, no direction, really bad acting, and an ersatz synth theme ripped off from Morricone’s THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY . Let’s put it this way… when Jody McCrea (Bonehead of the Beach Party series) takes your film’s best acting honors, you KNOW you’re in for trouble!!
This senseless excuse for a movie finds Renee out to avenge the death of her sister at the hands of a gang called Assassins Incorporated, or something like that. I’m really not too sure, as the convoluted plot isn’t well defined. The movie starts off promising for Grindhouse fans with a gruesome torture scene (including a beating with a Kendo stick ala WWE!), but descends into something truly bad. I don’t mean so-bad-it’s-good… I mean downright BAD. I’d say it looks like something out of a high school film class, but that would be an insult to high school film classes across the country. The only redeeming quality I could find in LADY STREET FIGHTER was that it finally ended.
Miss Harmon herself was of German origin, and immigrated to Texas with her Army colonel husband after WWII. Renee was always interested in acting, and after the couple moved to California she began producing, writing, and starring in her own low-budget films. She reminded me of the love child between Bela Lugosi and Marlene Dietrich (if one can imagine!) – trouble is, she couldn’t act her way out of the proverbial paper bag. And her martial arts “skills” are as bad as her acting. Her thick German accent (“Let’s zay at the goo-goo club”, she drones, meaning go-go club) is almost indecipherable, though I gotta admit the 50ish Renee looks pretty good nekkid, and she can do some really amazing things with a stalk of celery!
At the end of this totally incompetent movie, there was a scrawl that read…
Watch for THE RETURN OF LADY STREET FIGHTER…
What?? You mean there was a sequel?? Must’ve been rated “For Masochists Only”!!
Jackie Chan’s combination of slapstick comedy and kung-fu action helped make him a worldwide superstar, and DRUNKEN MASTER put him over the top as a cinematic force to be reckoned with. While I’m no expert on the genre, I’ve seen my fare share, and I can tell you this movie’s more than a few belts above because of Chan’s natural charm and comic timing.
As per usual with these films, the plot’s thinner as a Chow Mein noodle, which is okay because who needs a plot when you’ve got Jackie Chan? The dubbed version I saw casts Jackie as Freddie Wong, a rascally scamp whose father runs a kung-fu school. Pop tries to break the spirited Freddie without success, so he sends for Great-Uncle So Hi, a tough old buzzard with a fondness for saki (hence the title!). So Hi drives Freddie so hard with his grueling training the youngster runs away! But an encounter with the deadly assassin Thunderleg, in which Freddie suffers abject humiliation, finds Freddie crawling back to his Drunken Master to perfect the Technique of the 8 Drunken Gods. And just in time, for Pop’s unscrupulous enemies have hired Thunderleg to kill him, resulting in a Freddie vs Thunderleg rematch that’s a dizzying display of both athletic grace and Jackie’s comic gifts.
The film’s an almost non-stop orgy of graceful kung-fu action scenes highlighted by Jackie’s comedic talents. It’s a “star vehicle” all the way, and launched Chan to international acclaim. He’d been around the Hong Kong film scene awhile, as a child actor in the 60’s, a stuntman in the 70’s (working on the Bruce Lee films FISTS OF FURY, ENTER THE DRAGON , and GAME OF DEATH), and even a Hong Kong porn flick before finally breaking through with SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW and this movie, catapulting him to “overnight” stardom. His athletic martial arts moves have a balletic quality to him, and his comedic chops are impeccable.
Chan didn’t really break through stateside until 1995’s RUMBLE ON THE DOCKS, though he’d been seen here in 1980’s THE BIG BRAWL and Burt Reynolds’s CANNONBALL RUN movies. Thanks to VHS and DVD, fans quickly caught up on his Hong Kong-made Kung-Foolery, and mainstream films like RUSH HOUR and SHANGHAI NOON elevated him to his rightful place as a major action star. DRUNKEN MASTER was the second film for director Yuen Woo-ping, who also made SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW with Jackie (and whose father Yuen Siu-tien plays Master So Hi), and his talents led him to mainstream work as well, choreographing the action scenes in the MATRIX and KILL BILL movies.
DRUNKEN MASTER gives fans the opportunity to see a young Jackie Chan honing his screen persona, and doing what he does best – giving audiences plenty of laughs to go along with plenty of action! Like I said, I’m no expert on Martial Arts movies, but I know what I like, and I liked this one a lot. Chances are, you will, too!
Charles Buchinsky was born November 3, 1921 in the coal-country town of Ehrenfield, PA to a Lithuanian immigrant father and second-generation mother. He didn’t learn to speak English until he was a teen, and joined the Air Force at age 23, serving honorably in WWII. Returning home, young Charles was bitten by the acting bug and made his way to Hollywood, changing his last name to ‘Bronson’ in the early fifties. Charles Bronson spent decades toiling in supporting parts before becoming a name-above-the-title star in Europe.
By the 1970’s, Bronson had begun his long run as an action star. THE STONE KILLER capitalizes on the popularity of Cop and Mafia movies of the era, with Our Man Bronson as Lou Torrey, a Dirty Harry-type who shoots first and asks questions later. After he kills a 17-year-old gunman in the pre-credits opening, Torrey is raked over the coals by the New York City press, and decides to accept a job with the LAPD. Two years pass, and we find Torrey making a heroin bust on a crook named Armitage, who he knows from the past. Armitage has a murder warrant out for his arrest in NYC, and Torrey has to escort him back to The Big Apple. The crook is gunned down at the airport, and a string of gangland-related killings occurs, as Torrey tries to connect the dots, leading him to a vengeful Mafia Don, a crew of Vietnam Vet mercenaries, violence, shootings, bloodshed, car crashes, and other fun stuff!
If you’re gonna steal, steal from the best, and THE STONE KILLER is loaded with echoes of DIRTY HARRY and THE GODFATHER. Bronson’s at his best as the tough cop Torrey, whether he’s beating up a perp or spouting a quick quip (“The FBI can piss in its collective ear” is my favorite Bronsonism here!). There are a couple of in-jokes referencing Bronson’s coal-country roots, and I particularly enjoyed the amusingly weird scene set at an Ashram, where Bronson interrogates hippie chick Kelly Miles – it seems so out-of-place among all the carnage! This was his third film with director Michael Winner (CHATO’S LAND, THE MECHANIC ), and the duo’s DEATH WISH was looming on the horizon, which put Bronson over the top as an action star for good.
He’s surrounded by a top-notch cast of character actors. Oscar winner Martin Balsam plays Mafia chieftain Vescari, complete with Sicilian accent, out to settle an old score. Norman Fell plays Bronson’s boss Daniels (and Fell’s future THREE’S COMPANY costar John Ritter is a rookie cop!). Ralph Waite is the racist cop Mathews, David Sheiner’s Bronson’s old partner Guido, Stuart Margolin the mercenary Lawrence, and veteran Walter Burke stands out as a grass-dealing informant. Other Familiar Faces include Frank Campanella , Jack Colvin (THE INCREDIBLE HULK’s McGee), Robert Emhardt , Hoke Howell, Byron Morrow, Christina Raines, Angelo Rossitto , Alfred Ryder, and Charles Tyner .
THE STONE KILLER certainly fills the bill for Charles Bronson Action Flick junkies out there – and yes, I’m one of them! It’s got all the elements, including the obligatory car chase (only Charlie’s chasing down a suspect on a Honda – another good scene!), and moves swiftly thanks to Winner’s direction and Roy Budd’s pulse-pounding score. Happy birthday Mr. Bronson – we miss you!!
Back in the 70’s, the crowd I hung out with didn’t give a rat’s ass about STAR WARS … THE WARRIORS was THE movie to see! The film reportedly resulted in outbreaks of violence, vandalism, and even three deaths – including one up in Boston! – and Paramount Pictures pulled all its advertising, because that’s what adults do! Didn’t matter to us, though… everyone already knew about THE WARRIORS and it’s glorification of violence, and all the neighborhood cool kids just had to catch it (including a certain long-haired wiseass who used to amuse his street corner friends with his “useless knowledge” of old movies).
The myriad street gangs of New York City have declared a truce and gathered together for a big meet called by Cyrus, leader of The Riffs. The charismatic Cyrus whips ’em into a frenzy proposing they all organize into one huge gang to control The Big Apple’s streets (“Can you dig it?”). A psycho named Luther, war chief of The Rogues, assassinates Cyrus, is seen by The Warriors, the cops bust things up (and bust a few heads), Luther pins the murder on The Warriors, and now the truce is broken as The Warriors must run through a gauntlet of gangs to get back to their Coney Island turf alive…
THE WARRIORS is essentially one long, though highly stylized, chase film. Director Walter Hill and co-writer David Shaber (NIGHTHAWKS, LAST EMBRACE) updated Sol Yurick’s 1965 novel and turned it into a comic book orgy of exaggerated violence, complete with a gaudy color scheme and costumed villains, all set to a pulse-pounding synth-rock score by Barry De Vorzon. It was with this film that I first became aware of Hill, who had written the screenplay for Sam Peckinpah’s THE GETAWAY and went on to make some of my favorite movies of the 80’s : THE LONG RIDERS, SOUTHERN COMFORT, 48 HRS.
The Riffs put out the word to get The Warriors via a radio DJ (reminiscent of another 70’s chase film, VANISHING POINT ), and the violence escalates as they encounter gang after gang out to get them. First up is The Orphans, a bunch of non-entities easily dispatched with a Molotov cocktail. Orphans chick Mercy, a street-wise toughie (“I ain’t no whore”), tags along with The Warriors, mainly to set up a little “Romeo and Juliet of the streets” subplot with Warrior war chief Swan to appeal to the females in the audience.
The film’s not about any sappy love story though, but rather the action-packed set pieces: The Baseball Furies, decked out in face paint and (hated around these parts) Yankee pinstripes, wielding baseball bats to take out The Warriors, to which hot-headed Ajax replies, “I’ll shove that bat up your ass and turn you into a popsicle”! The roller-skating Punks menace Swan and Mercy in a desolate subway until their Warrior brethren show up and a violent men’s room brawl takes place. Best of all involves The Lizzies, an all-girl gang who sucker three Warriors to their crash pad to party, only to pull guns and switchblades out before our heroes barely escape with their lives! The climax comes at dawn, as The Warriors finally make it back to Coney Island, only to be confronted by psycho Luther and his Rogues. Asked why he wasted Cyrus, Luther sneeringly replies, “No reason, I just like doing things like that” as he points his gun at Swan and… I won’t spoil the ending; suffice it to say justice is served, and we fade out to the strains of Joe Walsh’s FM hit “In The City”:
Everyone thought Michael Beck (Swan) would be a big breakout star… that is, until he made XANADU the following year and had his cool card immediately pulled! Deborah Van Valkenburgh (Mercy) was every street kid’s dream, an object of lustful desire in a braless pink halter top, with full pouty lips and a sexy overbite – YOWZA! She went on to co-star in the sitcom TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT (1980-83), almost unrecognizable as the sensible daughter of Ted Knight. James Remar plays the meatheaded Ajax (every gang has one), a hunk of bad attitude constantly questioning Swan’s authority, who winds up getting busted hitting on an undercover cop. Remar’s had a decent career since then, appearing in 48 HRS, THE COTTON CLUB, THE PHANTOM, DRUGSTORE COWBOY, and DJANGO UNCHAINED, and as Kim Cattral’s sometimes boyfriend on SEX AND THE CITY from 2002-04. The other Warriors are Dorsey Wright (Cleon), Brian Tyler (Snow), David Harris (Cochise), Tom McKittrick (Cowboy), Marcelino Sanchez (Rembrandt), Terry Mihos (Vermin), and Thomas G. Waite (Fox), who went uncredited and was killed off early after a rift with Hill.
David Patrick Kelly’s Luther was another archetype you’d find in any band of juvenile delinquents, the sociopathic maniac who doesn’t give a shit about anybody or anything but himself. Luther’s taunting chant “Warr-i-ors, come out to play-ay”, accompanying himself by clinking three empty beer bottles stuck on his fingers, was definitely the film’s most imitated scene by kids everywhere, and remains its most iconic. Kelly’s looney-tunes characterization got him noticed, and he’s gone on to act in films like COMMANDO, THE CROW, CROOKLYN, WILD AT HEART, JOHN WICK, and as Jerry Horne on David Lynch’s TWIN PEAKS, both the original series and the recent revival.
Why did kids like me like THE WARRIORS so much? It wasn’t just the stylistic violence that held an appeal: The Warriors were US, or at least a romanticized fantasy version of what we THOUGHT we were back in the day. We didn’t wear colors, our biker friends would disapprove (though a group or two of local yokels did after the film’s release, but they were basically just punk-ass wannabes that no one took seriously), but brothers (and sisters) we were, disaffected, alienated youth who chose to live outside societal norms. We were family, dysfunctional as hell with chips on each shoulder, trying to cope with a world we didn’t understand and didn’t really want to, anyway. THE WARRIORS has taken on cult status as an improbable but enjoyable rock’n’roll fantasy, but back in 1979, the idea of THE WARRIORS mattered… at least to a bunch of street corner “hoodlums” from New Bedford, MA, many of whom sadly died way too young. This one’s for you, Ball’s Corner Boys.
Clint Eastwood is posing as a preacher in a small Montana town, giving his Sunday sermon. Meanwhile, carefree Jeff Bridges steals a Trans Am off a used car lot and goes for a joyride. Clint’s sermon is interrupted by a hit man who opens fire in the church, chasing Eastwood down through a wheat field, when Bridges comes speeding along, running the killer down. Clint hops in the Trans Am, and the two become fast friends, setting up THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT, a wild and wooly tale that’s part crime caper, part character study, and the directorial debut of Michael Cimino.
Clint plays Korean War veteran John Mahoney, a criminal known as “The Thunderbolt” who pulled off a successful half-million dollar armory robbery. His ex-gang members (George Kennedy ,Geoffrey Lewis ) think he betrayed them, and are out to kill him, but not before finding out where the loot is hidden. He’s basically a loner, an island unto himself, until he meets up with Bridges’ Lightfoot, an affable goofball who lives outside society’s rules. These two outsiders form a bond as they wander around aimlessly, trying to stay one step ahead of the murderous Red Leary (Kennedy) and his quiet partner Goody (Lewis).
The killers finally catch up with our stars, but things are smoothed over, and the four go to retrieve the money, hidden behind a blackboard in a one-room schoolhouse. But the schoolhouse is gone, apparently torn down by progress, and with it their dreams, until Lightfoot comes up with a brilliant idea: recreate their glorious achievement by heisting the armory again. Red, who detests the young neer-do-well, scoffs at first, but “Thunderbolt” is all in, and the elaborate scheme (complete with Bridges in drag) goes off just as planned, except for one fateful mistake at a local drive-in….
Jeff Bridges deservedly earned his second Oscar nomination as the free-spirited Lightfoot, a man-child who’s a loner like Eastwood’s character. The older “Thunderbolt” takes a shine to Lightfoot’s outrageous attitude and outlook on life, which he finds similar to his own. Bridges really came into his own during these 70’s flicks, and was soon a major star in his own right. George Kennedy is always good playing a mean, nasty dude (as opposed to Bridges as THE Dude!), and Lewis offers comedy relief as the soft-spoken Goody. The cast is full of Familiar Faces from film and TV, including Catherine Bach (THE DUKES OF HAZZARD) as a hooker, PLAN 9’s Gregory Walcott as a used car salesman, Alvin Childress (Amos of AMOS’N’ANDY fame) as a janitor, and Gary Busey, Jack Dodson, Burton Gilliam, Beth Howland, Roy Jensen, Karen Lamm, Bill McKinney, Vic Tayback, and Dub Taylor . Rock’n’roll backup singer supreme Claudia Lennear (Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, Delaney & Bonnie, etc) has a bit as a sexy secretary.
Eastwood himself was originally scheduled to direct, but instead gave young Michael Cimino a shot at his first feature job. Cimino began his career directing TV commercials, and was co-screenwriter on the sci-fi film SILENT RUNNING and Eastwood’s DIRTY HARRY sequel MAGNUM FORCE. His shot framing against the backdrop of Montana’s Big Sky country is picture perfect, and he ably guides the cast of pros through their paces. It’s a good first outing, and led to 1978’s Oscar winner THE DEER HUNTER, copping both Best Picture and Director that year. Unfortunately his follow-up, 1980’s HEAVEN’S GATE, became one of Hollywood’s all-time disasters, and tanked big-time at the box office. To be honest, I’ve yet to see it, so I couldn’t tell you if it’s as bad as it’s reputation. I have seen and enjoyed Cimino’s 1985 YEAR OF THE DRAGON, which I feel is underrated and overlooked. But the bombing of HEAVEN’S GATE pretty much ended Michael Cimino’s career as a major filmmaker; he died in 2016, his dreams and the promises of his debut film THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT and his masterpiece THE DEER HUNTER unfulfilled.
(First off, feast your eyes on the incredibly cool Frank Frazetta poster! Then read on… )
Clint Eastwood’s directorial credits include some impressive films: THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, PALE RIDER, UNFORGIVEN, MYSTIC RIVER, MILLION DOLLAR BABY. While 1977’s THE GAUNTLET may not belong on that list, I feel it’s a very underrated movie deserving a second look. Clint and his lady love at the time Sondra Locke star in this character study of two damaged people disguised as an action comedy, essentially a chase film loaded with dark humor.
Clint plays Ben Shockley, an alcoholic Phoenix cop sent to Las Vegas to extradite Gus Mally, “a nothing witness in a nothing trial”. Gus turns out to be a woman, a hooker in fact, set to testify against a Phoenix mobster. Ben’s suspicions are roused when he learns Vegas oddsmakers are giving 50-1 they don’t make it to Phoenix alive, confirmed when the car they’re to drive to the airport is blown to smithereens! From there, it’s Ben and Gus trying to beat those odds as not only the mob but the cops are out to kill them – the corrupt Phoenix police commissioner is a perv who abused Gus, and pulls out all the stops to prevent her testimony.
When we first meet Ben, he’s looking pretty ragged. Drunk and disheveled, going nowhere on the job, and somewhat of a meathead, Ben’s the perfect patsy for Commissioner Blakelock’s fools errand. Face it, the guy’s expendable. But Ben has a reputation for getting the job done, and his dogged determination drives him to reach his goal. He may be in love with Jack Daniels, but when he learns he’s been set up by Blakelock, he draws on some inner strength to not only prove he’s still a competent cop, but to stick it to Blakelock.
Locke’s Gus Mally is a free-spirited, feminist hooker who may not have the proverbial heart of gold, but has a steely reserve of her own. She knows the fix is in, and is reluctant at first to return to Phoenix and certain death. Along the way, she lets down her hard-core veneer and begins to trust Ben, eventually falling in love with the big ape. She also gets the best lines, calling Ben at one point a “.45 caliber fruit”, and engaging in banter like this: Ben: “I just do what I’m told” Gus: “Yeah, well so does an imbecile”.
The violence quotient in THE GAUNTLET is ratcheted up to 11. There’s a scene where the Vegas cops blast the fuck out of Gus’s home, turning it into a smoldering block of Swiss cheese. The duo hop a freight train and are attacked by bikers, with Gus almost getting raped before Ben’s act of self-sacrifice. There’s blazing machine guns and explosions a-plenty, and the final gauntlet run through Phoenix in an armored bus is a masterpiece of mass destruction. Yes, the ending is totally improbable, but it will definitely make you smile.
Clint and Sondra’s offscreen life was filled with controversy, but they made a dynamic duo onscreen. Locke and Eastwood costarred in the aforementioned JOSEY WALES, as well as EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE, BRONCO BILLY, ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN, and SUDDEN IMPACT. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her film debut THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER, and appeared in the horror flick WILLARD. Like THE GAUNTLET itself, Miss Locke is an underrated actress whose ‘palimony’ litigation against Eastwood after their break-up practically ruined her career (the more things change… ). She also directed the films RATBOY, IMPULSE, and DO ME A FAVOR, and is a breast cancer survivor.
Pat Hingle plays Ben’s former partner, now an administrator who discretely helps his friend from the inside. William Prince makes a slimy bad guy as Blakelock, and Clint’s old Universal Studios stablemate Mara Corday shows up early on as a prison matron. Bill McKinney , Roy Jenson, and Dan Vadis are Familiar 70’s Faces in the cast. Composer Jerry Fielding contributes a cool jazz score, featuring musician Art Pepper on sax. It aids tremendously in putting the picture over, as does Clint’s keen cinematic eye. THE GAUNTLET may not rank high in the Eastwood directorial canon, but it’s an exciting, explosive genre classic crackling with excitement that can be viewed as both an action thriller and character study, and is well worth another look.
I used to devour those Doc Savage pulp novels reissued as paperbacks by Bantam Books. You know, the ones with those cool James Bama covers? They were filled with action, adventure, intelligence, and good humor, as written by Lester Dent under the pseudonym ‘Kenneth Robeson’. Doc himself was a paragon of goodness, trained from birth in the arts and sciences, a perfect physical specimen adept at all the fighting disciplines with near super-human strength. In fact, one could make a case for Doc Savage as the world’s first mass-market superhero, the Man of Bronze predating DC’s Superman (The Man of Steel) by a good five years.
Doc’s amazing adventures screamed for a screen treatment, but it wasn’t until 1975 that producer George Pal bought the character’s rights from Dent’s widow Norma and made DOC SAVAGE: THE MAN OF BRONZE. Pal, whose credits include sci-fi classics like WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, WAR OF THE WORLDS, and THE TIME MACHINE, seemed like the right man for the job. He hired handsome, muscular former TV Tarzan Ron Ely to portray Doc, and director Michael Anderson, who’d helmed the WWII action flick THE DAM BUSTERS and the Oscar-winning AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS. What could possibly go wrong?
Plenty. All the right elements were in place: Doc’s Fabulous Five band of brothers (Monk, Ham, Renny, Johnny, Long Tom), his Fortress of Solitude, a 1930’s setting, a script based on Doc’s origin story (with parts of two other novels incorporated), and plenty of gadgets. But Pal, his co-screenwriter Joe Morhaim, and Anderson chose to go the camp route, spoiling the film. Frank DeVol adapted John Philip Sousa marches as his score, and it’s horrible, ruining the action scenes. While Dent’s books always carried a hefty amount of humor, here it’s played to the Nth degree, and not always intentional. Doc’s eyes literally twinkle thanks to animation, every mode of transport has the stylized Bantam ‘Doc Savage’ logo on it. The film has the look and feel of a bad TV movie, as Pal was aiming for a series akin to the 1960’s BATMAN, but the camp craze was long out of fashion. The whole thing fails to capture the spirit of the Savage novels, treating the material as a joke.
Ely deserved better. The actor, who later hosted the game show FACE THE MUSIC and the Miss America pageant, makes a good-looking, solid Doc, and plays things fairly straight. The Fab 5 (Michael Miller, Darrell Zwerling, William Luckling, Paul Gleason, Eldon Quick) don’t, and though they resemble the team, they’re just cardboard characters. Paul Wexler as archvillain Captain Seas is way over the top, and Pamela Hensley (BUCK ROGERS, MATT HOUSTON) just flat-out couldn’t act. Michael Berryman, Carlos Rivas, and Robert Tessier are also in the cast, and Paul Frees does the narration. The little old lady crossing the street near the end is Grace Stafford, longtime voice of Woody Woodpecker (Pal was pals with Grace and her husband, animator Walter Lantz).
At the very end, DOC SAVAGE: THE ARCHENEMY OF EVIL is advertised as coming soon. Since the first film tanked miserably, it never got made. I’m glad it didn’t, because I want to see a more straightforward version of Doc put on the Silver Screen. In May of 2016 it was announced a new version would be filmed, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and directed by Shane Black. We’re still waiting for that to materialize. Meanwhile, fans of the Man of Bronze can stick to rereading those Bantam paperbacks, and skip this waste of time.
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.