WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!
While I have seen my fair share of Blaxploitation films such as SHAFT, DOLEMITE, BLACULA, SUPER SOUL MAN, Berry Gordy’s THE LAST DRAGON, and HELL UP IN HARLEM (just to new a few), there are so many more that I haven’t gotten around to yet. Yes, I am still relatively a virgin when it comes to this particular genre Vault Dwellers, but I’ve been working on remedying that. To further my studies of African-American cinematic culture, I decided to take a chance on BLACK BELT JONES, and I’m very happy I did!
Featuring martial arts superstar Jim Kelly, this urban kung-fu classic pits the title character against the mob. After losing multiple undercover operatives during an investigation into the illegal activities of Don Steffano (Andre Philippe), the police turn to Black Belt Jones for aid. None too eager to infiltrate a mobster’s fortress, Jones refuses to accept the mission. (“Don’t believe that bullshit about niggers being invisible.”)
But events are soon set in motion that will drag Black Belt Jones directly into the assignment he turned down. News spreads to the mafia that a new civic center is going to be built in downtown Los Angeles(?), and the best parcel of land is currently occupied by a karate school owned by Pop Byrd (Scatman Crothers). Don Steffano hires a local drug dealer named Pinky (Malik Carter) to force Pop out, but the old man refuses to budge.
Pinky’s initial strongarm tactics fail when he and his goons are tossed out by Pop’s students, and later bested by Black Belt Jones, so he ups the ante. Sadly Pops is (unintentionally) killed, which leads to the discovery that his estranged daughter Sydney (Gloria Hendry) is the one who actually owns the karate school. A skilled martial artist herself, Sydney strolls into Pinky’s pool hall and doles out some butt-kicking to avenge her father.
This attack sends Pinky through the roof, so he rounds up some “bogarts from ‘Frisco” (aka “treacherous niggas”), and uses his newly hired muscle to kidnap a young student named Quincy (Eric Laneuville). With a hostage for leverage, and backed by a small army of thugs, Pinky demands a quarter of a million dollars for their captive’s safe release. With the odds stacked against them, Black Belt Jones and Syndey must save Quincy, defeat Pinky, and stop Don Steffano’s nefarious plans to snatch up Pop Byrd’s school!
Directed by Robert Clouse (ENTER THE DRAGON), BLACK BELT JONES is a total blast, and has instantly become one of my favorite Blaxploitation films. It fulfills all of the necessary genre requirements (e.g. strong black lead, funk soundtrack, urban locale) but also manages to include a strong female character in the form of Gloria Hendry’s Sydney. I love that she isn’t afraid to pick a fight with Pinky’s henchmen (“I’ll make you look like a sick faggot.”), or play hard to get with the film’s hero. (“My cookie would kill you!”)
Sydney wants Jones to regard her as an equal, which is made evident in a scene where they discover that Quincy has been taken. After getting the news, Jones prepares to save the day and grabs a pistol out of his briefcase, then insists that Sydney stay behind and “do those dishes or something.” Seconds later, she blasts the stack of dirty dishes into pieces with a handgun, following it up with a great one-liner: “They’re done.”
The late Jim Kelly is perfect as the lead in BLACK BELT JONES. Though he falters a bit during scenes where he pretends to converse on a telephone, he delivers some great dialogue and one-liners while kicking his way through Pinky and Don Steffano’s minions. An accomplished martial artist, Kelly was more than up to the task of pulling off the choreography and stunts created for the film by Bob Wall (Oharra in ENTER THE DRAGON), a notable pupil of Chuck Norris.
But as the saying goes, a hero is only as good as his villain, and Malik Carter totally saves the day as the utterly hilarious Pinky. While Don Steffano and his fellow mobsters are the “big bads,” they are rather uninspired and completely forgettable. Thankfully Pinky keeps things interesting and entertaining throughout the bulk of the movie’s running time. He’s greedy and kind of dumb, but you have to admire his tenacity! No matter how many times Pinky gets his ass handed to him, he always comes back for more! Plus he has some of the best lines in the movie!
BLACK BELT JONES shoehorns a little romance, intrigue, and expository dialogue into its lean 85-minute running time, but never skimps on the action. All of the fight scenes are evenly distributed throughout the movie (roughly one every ten minutes), and showcase Jim Kelly’s martial arts prowess. I particularly like the sequence where Jones has a friend turn the lights on and off in Pop’s dojo, allowing him to get the drop on Pinky and his men when they try to sneak in late at night. (Pinky: “Who the f*ck hit me?!” Jones: “Batman, MUTHAF*CKA!”)
The movie eventually builds up to a decisive battle that takes place at a malfunctioning car wash, where our afroed hero takes on one opponent after another while waist deep in soap suds. As Jones fights a swarm of enemies, Sydney provides some backup, and tosses defeated opponents into the back of a garbage truck! It is an admittedly unique final showdown, but the sequence is dragged out a little longer than it should be. We don’t need to see Jones beating up everyone that attacks him. We already know he’s a BAMF that can’t be beat!
A little editing could have helped here or, barring that, some additional scenes could have been shot featuring the unexpected arrival of Pop’s karate students. It would have been a nice surprise if they appeared and aided the beleaguered heroes against the seemingly neverending stream of henchmen. Even more preferable would have been a duel between Jones and a mafia-hired karate master (or ninja)! If the filmmakers went that route, there would have been a little much-needed tension during the climax, because at no point do you ever feel that Black Belt Jones won’t triumph over his foes.
But the overlong final fight is a minor quibble because BLACK BELT JONES is an enjoyable entry into the Blaxploitation genre. It has memorable characters, some hilarious dialogue, well-choreographed fight sequences, and a great funk soundtrack composed by Luchi de Jesus and Dennis Coffey. (Listen to the main theme HERE.) It’s super cheesy at times, and definitely could have used a little more polish in post-production, but BLACK BELT JONES easily won me over, and earned itself a rating of: