Director: Robert Clouse
Writers: Fred Weintraub, Alexandra Rose, Oscar Williams
Cast: Jim Kelly, Gloria Hendry, Alan Weeks, Malik Carter, Eric Laneuville, Scatman Crothers, Mel Novak, Andre Philippe
PLOT THICKENERIf you ever find yourself at some rich jerk’s house and he takes you into his climate-controlled wine closet and offers up a vintage 1974 merlot from Del Orso Vineyards, you would be wise to pay attention to the following notes. See that brick red color? The viscosity of the liquid as it coats the glass while you swirl it about? Maybe you taste the faint presence of tobacco, iron, or even meat? The reason for this is because this wine was fermented in a vat with a dead body in it. You are drinking dead people. Spit that wine the fuck outta here and welcome to the 1974 Jim Kelly classic, Black Belt Jones.
When Pop Byrd (Crothers) and his karate school come under attack from a neighborhood crime boss named Pinky (Carter), the sparks, fur, and polyester will surely fly. Pinky is under the thumb of Italian mafioso and wine magnate, Don Steffano (Philippe), and he has orders to secure the location of the school for future real estate development. If the combined efforts of the karate school’s teacher, Toppy (Weeks) and his understudy, Quincy (Laneuville), aren’t enough muscle to hold off the goon squad, where else can they turn?
Enter Black Belt Jones (Kelly), a martial arts expert, unabashed trampoline enthusiast, and righteous dude with the unwavering respect of his community. As a one-time student of Byrd and a school loyalist, he’s more than willing to lead the fight against Pinky’s hostile advances. In parallel, the local police force is trying to recruit Jones to infiltrate the Don’s vineyard gang, with everyone apparently unaware of the links between the mafia and Pinky. When Byrd’s long-lost daughter, Sydney (Hendry) unexpectedly arrives in town to defend the honor of her pop and his school, the battle lines are drawn. Can Jones and Sydney get along well enough to fend off the aggressors? Will the alliance of Pinky’s gang and the mafia -- including a handsome menace known only as Blue Eyes (Novak) -- prove too strong a force? And is this the film which shows the very first 360-degree roundhouse kick in cinema history, courtesy of Scatman Crothers?
This follows Jim Kelly's scene-stealing role as Williams in Enter the Dragon, released just a year beforehand, and it's really a showcase for Kelly as a leading man. The action is choreographed to his strengths: kicking ass and looking good while doing it. If there’s a problem with this one-note approach, it’s that the outcomes of the fight scenes become predictable. The stunt guys sell out really well to make Kelly’s character look like a total superhero, but Jones lacks a logical, physical equal in the story (other than his ally, Sydney). The salve for this effect is a lot of visual creativity in the presentation. One scene has Jones working with Toppy during a night-time raid of the dojo by Pinky’s gang to use the indoor lighting strategically as he repeatedly busts heads and disappears in the darkness, only to re-emerge in the light and do it all over again. Another sees him fighting off Pinky’s men inside of an abandoned train car, and in one confrontation after another, the bruised henchmen fly through the train car windows to the outside, to almost comical effect.
In the infamous climax, Jones battles the remnants of the various gangs at a truck wash lot in a sudsy sea of knee-high soap. He makes easy work of his enemies using a variety of moves, though none more flashy than a chain of butterfly kicks that takes out four consecutive unlucky henchmen. In modern terms, a lot of this is going to look silly because there’s plenty of dreaded “stunt guys standing around and waiting to get hit” on the screen. I’m not sure it’s fair to nitpick the fight choreography, though, since American filmmakers were still figuring out how to stage martial arts for film audiences. Regardless, the scenes are creative and humorous on the whole and you’re not watching this for the fight scenes alone.
What I will nitpick, however, is some dated and regrettable language that, while not unique to this particular film, is certainly endemic to exploitation cinema as a whole. Prior to a physical confrontation with some of Pinky’s gang members, Sydney drops a gay slur in the middle of some trash-talking dialogue that will land with an awkward thud with most modern viewers. Why was this level of homophobia ever a thing in this genre? Do we blame Clouse for including it? The screenwriters for hatching the line? I would hate to think that Hendry ad-libbed it. And by the by, I can’t justifiably knock the film for a throwaway line like this without acknowledging the casual misogyny of BBJ telling Sydney to “do those dishes or something” before she shoots all of them with a loaded revolver and quips, “they’re done.” The humor there is in her assertive push-back against his misguided misogyny. That’s the joke!
Despite not being a technical marvel of filmmaking, this is quite possibly the most unadulterated *fun* that an American martial arts film has delivered, and it’s a historically important film to boot. I won’t lecture readers on the cultural significance of Kelly as the first black martial arts superstar -- I wasn’t alive when this was released, and frankly, as just another privileged white dude blogging on the web about cult movies, I don’t wield that authority -- but Black Belt Jones helped to kick off an incredible run of films through the end of the 1970s that melded martial arts and blaxploitation film elements. This Reddit thread does a good job of unpacking the context for how this type of film became so popular, and this tribute written by Michael over at Kiai Kick provides a good perspective for why Jim Kelly was so important to black moviegoers and other people of color who loved martial arts and action film. Jim Kelly really was a trailblazer, and will be remembered as a legend.
VERDICTFor many, Black Belt Jones is one of the great American martial arts films of all time, and I count myself among those ranks. The action scenes are ton of fun, it features an incredibly charismatic lead coming into his own as an action star, and the relationship between the two main characters is enjoyable and engaging. Such cool, very recommend!
AVAILABILITYStreaming on Amazon Prime, Vudu, Google Play, iTunes. DVD is widely available on Netflix or the 4 Film Favorites: Urban Action collection from Warner Bros.
5.5 / 7