Black Belt Jones (1974)

PLOT: A righteous martial artist comes to the aid of his master when his karate school is being targeted for hostile takeover by a local crime boss beholden to the Italian Mafia. They probably want to turn it into a Whole Foods.

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


If 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.


For 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!


Streaming 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


Ninja Busters (1984)

PLOT: Two unemployed friends join a martial arts school to meet girls, but must first contend with a fierce trio of enemies determined to confront them: discipline, maturity, and self-respect.

Director: Paul Kyriazi
Writers: Sid Campbell, William C. Martell
Cast: Eric Lee, Sid Campbell, Gerald Okamura, Carlos Navarro, Dalia Gutierrez, Nancy Lee, Frank Navarro, Juan Morales, Fumiko Takahashi, Harry Mok


It’s a rare thing in film or television to see a full-grown adult suddenly decide to start training in martial arts as a plot point (Seinfeld’s Kramer is an obvious exception). In most films, any portrayal finds a professional fighter training in the run-up to a big match or a hero who is depicted as a bad-ass from the very beginning. In both of these cases, his or her first entrance into the dojo (or dojang, for the taekwondo-inclined) occurred years beforehand. In Paul Kyriazi’s 1984 action-comedy Ninja Busters, two adult friends join a karate class after making a joint New Year’s resolution to make positive changes in their physical well-being. Just kidding. They join a class to meet women.

Bernie (Lee) and Chic (Campbell) are two pals who work together at a San Francisco warehouse owned by a purported crime boss. They’re fired (and beaten up) after snooping around some crates marked with a cryptic dragon symbol, and then beaten up again during lunch when they argue with some local bikers. After licking their battle wounds on a long walk, they observe a lesson through the window of a local karate school. Not only are the students great fighters, but most of them are women. In short order, the two friends join the school for all of the wrong reasons.

The school’s Master (Okamura) and primary teacher, Romero (Carlos Navarro) are shocked by the behavior of their new students. Aside from being lazy and undisciplined, Chic and Bernie won’t stop hitting on the advanced students, Kathy (Gutierrez) and Tina (Lee). Romero is inclined to give these idiots the boot, but the Master sees value in their presence; the teachers have an opportunity to learn the virtue of patience through a dogged effort to reform them. Will the masters succeed and turn these slobs into fighting machines? Can bikers, ninjas, street gangs, karate students, Vietnam vets, and black separatists peacefully co-exist? And is it possible to have too many amazing turtleneck sweaters in the same movie?

The success of the 2012 Alamo Drafthouse re-release of Miami Connection established a demand for slick, modern presentations of lost action films of the 1970s and 80s. The market responded with subsequent releases of films like 1984’s Furious (once only available on VHS), 1982’s Raw Force, 1990’s Killing American Style (previously unreleased) and the 26-year action odyssey, Dangerous Men. While it shares an earnestness and the “lost” quality of the aforementioned titles, Ninja Busters otherwise bears little resemblance. For starters, it’s a comedy that aims to be intentionally funny; you won't get much ironic enjoyment here. Kyriazi was also on his third feature film, after having cut his teeth in the film departments at both San Francisco State University and the U.S. Air Force. He got good production value out of the filming locations, so the limitations of its budget aren’t as visible as in other, similar films.

The comedic tone of the film is not unlike a lot of comedies of the 1980s; sometimes the jokes work, and other times the try-hard humor is a poor fit by today’s standards. Campbell, in particular, had a tendency to overdo the physical comedy bits, and much of the horndog behavior -- from 30+ year-old adults, no less -- came off as forced. (That the ladies at the martial arts school put both schmucks in their place for their stupidity helps to dilute the awkwardness, somewhat). On balance, the frequent deadpan humor and occasional visual gag tended to work the best, e.g., when the guys leave the dojo for a long run only to return with pizza sauce and regret all over the faces. We've all been there, amirite?!

Despite the emphasis on comedic elements, this didn’t necessarily carry over into the action choreography and manifest itself as full-on slapstick. A good majority of it is straightforward, honest martial arts. One sequence set in a junkyard -- where gangsters, ninjas, black separatists, and our heroes fight it out in a free-for-all brawl -- makes clever use of tires and swinging doors in the choreography. The film has a proper climax set in Romero’s Latin night club, and the fight choreography has a nice, flowing pace on the whole. Kyriazi worked with Lee and Okamura previously for 1981's The Weapons of Death, and it certainly shows in the action sequences.


As a film that attempts to blend elements of a prototypical 1980s comedy with martial arts, Ninja Busters is in a category all its own. There’s no doubting the earnestness that went into the performances and the filmmaking, but one’s mileage may vary because the humor is emphasized over the action, and falls flat at times. Despite this, it’s an interesting curiosity of the genre and definitely worth a watch.


The Bluray release from Garagehouse Pictures can be had at Amazon and your finest online retailers.

4 / 7

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