Force Four (1975)

PLOT: When an ancient African artifact is stolen by criminals, four of New York City’s best martial artists are hired to recover it. Can they rely on the city’s metro system to get the job done or will their efforts be derailed by service delays and random detours to Queens?

Director: Michael Fink
Writers: Leonard Michaels, Janice Weber
Cast: Owen Watson, Warhawk Tanzania, Malachi Lee, Judie Soriano, Sam Schwartz, Wilfredo Roldan, Sydney Filson


Just like you never forget your first love, you never forget your first brush with Warhawk Tanzania. When I first watched Devil’s Express a few years back, I was sad to learn he only had one other movie credit to his name. Not like, listening-to-Joy-Division-in-a-dark-room sad, but sad enough to trawl the weirdest corners of the Internet to find it. Made in 1974 and released the following year by director Michael Fink, Force Four (a.k.a. Black Force) featured a handful of prominent and legitimate NYC martial artists of the day, including Warhawk. While it lacks the zany tone of Devil’s Express and remains obscure even by C-grade blaxploitation film standards, it’s an interesting artifact that portended what “could have been” for a group of New York City martial artists eager to enter the vast world of 1970s NYC filmmaking.

This film opens with a man carrying a briefcase walking down a city street. He's assaulted in broad daylight by a group of men and the briefcase is stolen. We learn about its contents when a mystery caller phones his martial arts master pal, Jason (Watson), to put together a team to find it. In short order, Jason assembles a team comprised of his best students: Adam (Tanzania), Eric (Lee), and Billy (Soriano). The martial artist friends discover that the briefcase contained an ancient African fetish artifact, the sort of priceless mystical art object pursued equally by shady black-market dealers and distinguished museums alike.

They immediately hit the streets to work their personal networks throughout the city for any information on who might have organized the robbery (for that gritty NYC feel, Fink shoots these sequences in a cinéma vérité style set to upbeat R&B music). On multiple occasions, their investigative efforts raise the hackles of various neighborhood toughs, and the heroes are forced to defend themselves during street brawls (while also fighting against the natural discomfort caused by their slim-fit bell-bottom trousers). Clearly, someone in the city is trying to discourage their sleuthing, but who? Will Jason and company locate the object before it gets sold to the highest bidder? And is there any scene in this film that isn’t filled with a joyous, funky, back-beat?

Similar to how companies like Concorde-New Horizons brandished screen fighter credentials (e.g., “PKA Lightweight Champion”) in their films’ title sequences, this movie spells out each actor’s blackbelt dan level to legitimize their skills (and nearly two decades before it was cool!) To really nail the point home, our heroes are introduced through an extended kata demonstration sequence to highlight everyone, capped by Jason extinguishing some candles using a wakashizi (short sword). This footage also serves to undermine any and all legal claims to ownership of the “Rocafella Diamond” hand gesture (pro wrestler Diamond Dallas Page sued Jay-Z in 2005 over infringement, who later filed for a trademark) because Warhawk definitely beat them both to the punch.

When I say something like, “the action in this film is solid for its era,” that’s usually my nice way of saying that: a) the choreography isn’t up to today’s standards; b) the fighters weren’t sure how to fight for the camera; or c) the filmmakers didn’t know how to shoot fight scenes.

So, the action in this film is solid for its era. I won’t belabor the reasons for why this film does or doesn’t satisfy the aforementioned criteria, but these were certainly capable martial artists. The  intricacy of those opening kata demos didn’t consistently carry over to the larger-scale fight choreography. There are some good exchanges between the main actors and those who I'd assume were dojo colleagues or students -- one guy even gets punched *up* into a tree! -- but the “selling” of the fight scenes is inconsistent among the stunt performers. Nearly everybody is fighting in bell-bottom jeans and platforms shoes too, so maybe we can chalk some of these hitches up to “sartorial limitations.”

It’s impossible to discuss the film without acknowledging the role that music, courtesy of actual R&B band, Life, U.S.A. plays throughout the film. They’re featured prominently during a “live” performance at a gangster's pool-side soiree that precedes the Force’s invasion of the estate, and they have several tracks that play throughout the movie, especially during scenes where the Force members are working the streets and shaking down various characters for information. Were one or more members of this band friends or family members of the filmmakers? Did production company Landfall Systems, Inc., pull some sort of power play and force their involvement as a condition of the funding? The music is very much of the time period, so it’s not exactly out of place, but it also drowns out some admittedly terrible ADR work during several scenes. No doubt, movies can benefit from music in a general sense, but the way in which it was included in Force Four had a tendency to distract from what was happening on the screen.

This speaks to the film’s bigger problem, which is pace and padding. There’s chemistry and comradery among the main players, yet so few scenes that actually highlight this dynamic. The primary plot device of the stolen African artifact is well-suited to put the wheels of the story in motion, but the first act of the film relies a lot on extended takes of the heroes walking and talking, while the last third of the film is unnecessarily convoluted with plot twists. Far too often, there are short bursts of action or plot development followed by longer stretches of not much happening at all. You can get away with a lack of production sheen or solid acting, especially for films from this time and genre, but missteps in scene setting and sequencing in an 82-minute movie can really amplify a film’s problems.


This came out two years after Three the Hard Way and just a year after Black Belt Jones, two seminal Jim Kelly films that set a pretty high bar for 1970s action movies with blaxploitation genre elements. Black Force doesn’t reach those heights, but it featured real-life martial artists performing their craft on-screen. When you consider the rise of the Dolemite (1975) franchise and other films like it -- non-fighters attempting a poor facsimile of martial arts to often comical effect -- local, genuine martial artists carrying a film and fighting on-screen was a rare treat. For the Warhawk Tanzania completist in all of us!


VHS. Also currently streaming on Prime.

3 / 7

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