That’s Blaxploitation! 9: THREE THE HARD WAY (Allied Artists 1974)

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An All-Star Blaxploitation cast barrels their way through THREE THE HARD WAY, director Gordon Parks Jr.’s ultra-violent classic that dives into action from jump street and rarely lets up on the gas pedal straight through til the end. It’s the quintessential 70’s action flick whose thin plot only serves to weave a tapestry of wild action set pieces and well-staged stunt work courtesy of stunt coordinator Hal Needham and his stellar stunt gang.

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We’re lured into the action right from the get-go in a pre-credits scene of a desperate young black man escaping from a concentration-camp-like compound. He makes it to L.A. and contacts his friend, the BMW-driving, hot-shot record producer Jimmy Lait, played by NFL great Jim Brown . The kid is then assassinated in his hospital bed and Jimmy’s girl Wendy (Sheila Fraser) is kidnapped. A scene change lets us in on the plot, as white supremacist Monroe Feather and evil scientist Dr. Fortero have designed a “scientific” final solution to the race problem by spiking the water supplies of urban areas with a poison that kills only black folks!

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Jimmy then enlists two of his old pals to help foil the fiendish plot and save Wendy. Another football player turned actor, Fred ‘The Hammer’ Williamson, is studly Chicago PR man Jagger Daniels. Williamson was already a Blaxploitation icon for films like BLACK CEASAR and HELL UP IN HARLEM, and he and Brown have good screen chemistry (the pair would appear together in four other films). Then it’s on to Washington to recruit Mister Keyes, played by BLACK BELT JONES star Jim Kelly, whose incredible kung-fu moves made up for his lack of acting talent. These three bad-asses proceed to take on the villainous Feather’s army, winding up in an explosive finale that’s violent, bloody, and loads of fun.

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I’ve got to mention the titanic trio of topless female torturers who pop up, riding in garbed in red, white, and blue on matching Kawasakis to dole out punishment on a captured racist. They’re Countess (Playboy cover girl Pamela Serpe), Empress (Irene Tsu of HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI and PARADISE HAWAIIAN STYLE), and Princess (Marie O’Henry of DELIVER US FROM EVIL and DR. BLACK, MR. HYDE)….

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…and they’re a riotous highlight! They should’ve gotten their own film!

Crazy Jay Robinson, who played Caligula in THE ROBE and DEMETRIOS AND THE GLADIATORS, bring his oily talents to the role of Monroe Feather, and wasn’t even Oscar nominated (I know, I know, but he really is good in the part)! Familiar Faces include Charles McGregor (SUPER FLY’s Fat Freddie), Howard Platt (Officer Hoppy of SANFORD AND SON), Alex Rocco (THE GODFATHER), martial artist David Chow (who joins Kelly in a wild battle against some goons), and a young Corbin Bernsen. Richard Tufo composed the score, with songs by Curtis Mayfield’s old group The Impressions. Veteran Lucien Ballard capably handles the cinematography with his usual style.

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As far-fetched and unbelievable as THREE THE HARD WAY is, its non-stop action and likable stars kept me entertained all the way, and that’s exactly what I want out of a movie. It’s one of the definitive films in the Blaxploitation canon, and if you’re a fan like me, you’re gonna love this one. Get that popcorn ready, and enjoy!

That’s Blaxploitation! 8: SUPER FLY (Warner Brothers 1972)

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Pimpmobiles, outrageous fashions, and the funkiest score in movie history are only part of what makes SUPER FLY one of the best Blaxploitation/Grindhouse hits of all time. This low-budget film by director Gordon Parks Jr. captures the grittiness of 70’s New York in a way few larger productions ever could in its portrait of a street hustler yearning to get out of the life.

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Priest is a New York City coke dealer with all the outward trappings of success. As his partner Eddie puts it, he’s got “8-Track stereo, color TV in every room, and you can snort a half piece of dope every day… that’s the American dream, nigga! Ain’t it?”. To Priest, the answer is no. He’s tired of the hustle, the rip-off artists, and the deadbeats like Fat Freddie, and he’s got a plan to get out for good by scoring 30 keys through his mentor Scatter, selling them in four months, making a million dollars, and saying goodbye to the streets once and for all.

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But Priest’s plan hits a few snags when Fat Freddie gets busted and rats him out, triggering crooked cops led by a Deputy Commissioner to pull Priest and Eddie back in, making them an offer they can’t refuse to work for The Man. Eddie’s all for it, but Priest’s determined to quit after Scatter’s lugged by the cops and shot full of heroin, causing is death. Priest demands his half of the cash from Eddie, who promptly calls The Man. But once again, Priest’s got a plan to stick it to The Man one last time…

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SUPER FLY made a superstar out of Ron O’Neal- for a brief, shining moment anyway. Primarily a stage actor before this, O’Neal lights up the screen as the iconic anti-hero Priest, and gave him enough clout to direct the sequel, 1973’s SUPER FLY TNT. The sequel bombed at the box office however, and his subsequent film career saw him cast in mostly supporting roles: THE MASTER GUNFIGHTER (with BILLY JACK star Tom Laughlin), WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, A FORCE OF ONE, RED DAWN, and Larry Cohen’s ORIGINAL GANGSTERS, with fellow Blaxploitaion icons Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, Jim Brown, and Richard Roundtree. Ron O’Neal, forever SUPER FLY, passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2004.

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The other cast members aren’t household names, but will be familiar to genre fans. Carl Lee (Eddie) appeared in GORDON’S WAR as well as the exploitationer  WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS . (He was also the son of boxer/actor Canada Lee, noted for Hicthcock’s LIFEBOAT and the boxing noir BODY AND SOUL). Sheila Frazier (Priest’s main squeeze Georgia) was in 70’s films THE SUPER COPS, THREE THE HARD WAY, CALIFORNIA SUITE, and tons of TV guest shots. The great Julius Harris (Scatter) has an impressive resume that includes TROUBLE MAN, BLACK CAESAR, HELL UP IN HARLEM, and the James Bond outing LIVE AND LET DIE. Charles McGregor (Fat Freddie) can be seen in ACROSS 110th STREET and COME BACK CHARLESTON BLUE, among others. Producer Sig Shore pulls double duty by playing the crooked Commissioner Reardon.

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Director Gordon Parks Jr’s dad was a famous writer, photographer, and filmmaker who practically single-handedly ushered in the Blaxploitation film movement with his mega-hit SHAFT. But while the elder Parks’ protagonist was a more traditional hero, Parks Jr.’s star is an outlaw, working outside the constrains of society. Not to mention SHAFT had a way bigger budget than SUPER FLY’s paltry $58,000. Both films scored big at the box office though, and a genre was born. Kudos must go to DP James Signorelli, whose photography of New York street life is outstanding, and whose memorable staging of a steamy, soapy sex scene between O’Neal and Frazier still sizzles. Signorelli has worked for decades now producing most of the filmed parody segments on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Any discussion of SUPER FLY wouldn’t be complete without spotlighting Curtis Mayfield’s amazing soundtrack. The former lead singer of The Impressions’ urban soul/funk provides the perfect backdrop for the film’s down-and-dirty mood. As big a hit as the film was, the soundtrack album was an enormous success. Even white kids like me used to cruise around listening to “Superfly”, “Pusherman”, and “Freddie’s Dead” on our 8-Tracks (yes, 8-Tracks!). Mayfield and his band even appear in the film, playing “Pusherman” at Scatter’s club:

Fans of Blaxploitation/Grindhouse movies who haven’t yet seen SUPER FLY are depriving themselves of a genuine 70’s classic. It’s one of those films that captures the times perfectly, and influenced future filmmakers like John Singleton (BOYS N THE HOOD) and Ernest Dickerson (JUICE). “The game he plays he plays for keeps/Hustlin’ times and ghetto streets/Tryin’ to get over” indeed!

More “That’s Blaxploitation!”:

BLACK BELT JONES

BLACULA

FOXY BROWN

ABAR THE BLACK SUPERMAN

The CLEOPATRA JONES Saga

TOGETHER BROTHERS

TROUBLE MAN