Fast & Furious: Bruce Lee in ENTER THE DRAGON (Warner Brothers 1973)

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Haai-ya! The Seventies was the era of kung-fu cinema, and nobody did ’em better than the great Bruce Lee. Probably the biggest martial arts star ever, Lee came to prominence in the USA as Kato in the 60’s series THE GREEN HORNET. He acted and trained Hollywood stars in the art of kung fu, including James Coburn and Steve McQueen. When the kung fu craze hit the screens, Lee’s Hong Kong films THE BIG BOSS and FISTS OF FURY were released here to packed houses. ENTER THE DRAGON was Lee’s first American starring film, and unfortunately his last due to his untimely death shortly after the films’ release.

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The plot’s pretty simple: Shaolin martial arts master Lee is sent to thwart the evil Han, a Shaolin gone rogue, involved with the drug and white slavery trades. Han is the ruler of his own island, and he’s holding a martial-arts tournament there. Americans Roper (John Saxon) and Williams (Jim Kelly of BLACK BELT JONES ) are also among those entering the tournament. The film follows Lee’s efforts to investigate the goings-on, and winds up with a battle royal as Han unleashes his minions on Lee and Roper. Of course, Han is eventually vanquished, and the world is made safe from Han’s nefarious schemes.

In between, there’s a ton of kung fu action that comes fast and furious, with Bruce Lee at the center of it all. The cast features cult actor John Saxon (JOE KIDD, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) and karate champ Jim Kelly (BLACK BELT JONES ) in his film debut. The evil Han is Hong Kong actor Shih Kien, whose voice was dubbed by Charlie Chan’s Number Son, Keye Luke.

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The film is a visual delight as directed by Robert Clouse. Clouse was primarily an action director (DARKER THAN AMBER, BLACK BELT JONES, THE BIG BRAWL) and there’s a reason for that- he was deaf! Particularly stunning is the final showdown between Lee and Han, a Hall of Mirrors scene reminiscent of Orson Welles’ THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI. Lalo Schifrin’s score keeps things moving along at a brisk clip.

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Bruce Lee is credited as fight choreographer, and his style is like a well orchestrated dance. Lee was working on directing and starring in GAME OF DEATH when he died of cerebral edema, and Clouse was brought in to complete the film, released posthumously after Lee’s death. ENTER THE DRAGON stands as final tribute to his legacy, an all-out assault you won’t want to miss. (I can’t help thinking of the “Fistful of Yen” segment from THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE  though, a perfect parody of martial arts movies, especially this one! “Totaw consetwation!” )

That’s Blaxploitaion!: BLACK BELT JONES (Warners 1974)

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Here’s the recipe for the quintessential 70s flick: Take a huge hunk of blaxpolitation, add equal parts kung-fu action, throw in some Mafia type villains. Stick em all in a blender with some generic funk music, and you’ve got BLACK BELT JONES. This movie was made to cash in on all three crazes, and to make a star out of Jim ‘The Dragon’ Kelly, who appeared in director Robert Clouse’s previous kung-fu extravaganza ENTER THE DRAGON, starring the immortal Bruce Lee.  Kelly looked good onscreen, and had all the right martial art moves. Unfortunately, he couldn’t act his way out of a Chinese take-out box. Nobody can in this film except gorgeous Gloria Hendry, who plays Kelly’s kung-fu partner/love interest Sydney.

The plot’s basically just there to hang the action scenes on: Mafia chief Don Stefano tries to grab some land the city of Los Angeles wants for a new civic center. He sends Pinky, the local black gangleader, to threaten Papa Byrd (Scatman Crothers in a terrible hairpiece!), whose karate school sits on the land. Pinky roughs him up a little too well, and Papa dies. Enter Black Belt Jones (friends call him BB), the baddest dude in the hood! Papa’s long-lost daughter Sydney (Hendry) shows up at the funeral, and now owns the building. Turns out she’s a kung-fu fighter, too. Pinky sends for some Bogarts from San Francisco (Don: “What are Bogarts?” – Pinky: “Treacherous niggers!”) to beat up the kung-fu students and hold BB’s young pal Quincy (Eric Lanueville) hostage. BB rips off The Don and sets up Pinky to take the fall. They save Quincy, the hoods find out, and the obligatory car chase is on!  BB and Sydney kick righteous ass on the bad guys and turn them in to BB’s friends the Feds.

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I just love some of the politically incorrect (and inept) dialogue in BLACK BELT JONES:

  • “Wesley, I’m gonna slap the black offa you!”
  • “I’ll make you look like a sick faggot”
  • “You goddam ape! You made a monkey outta us!”

Kelly’s karate noises (“woo-woo-woo”) sound more like Curly Howard than Bruce Lee, while the whipcracking sound effects every time someone lands a blow would make a great drinking game! And those fashions…hoo boy! Motown session guitarist Dennis Coffey (“Scorpio”) delivers the theme, while the rest of the score, by Luchi DeJesus, is ersatz Quincy Jones, sounding straight out of a 70s cop show (and indeed, DeJesus did the music for TV’s GET CHRISTIE LOVE!).

Full of hand slapping and jive talking, BLACK BELT JONES is a pure slab of 70s cheese. Quentin Tarantino (whose movies I love) wishes he could’ve made this. If you’re in the mood for an 85 minute blast from the past, catch BLACK BELT JONES. Can you dig it?

(There’ll be more That’s Blaxpolitation! posts in the near futureStay tuned, suckas!) 

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