Martial Arts Movies

Golden Needles

1974

American International Pictures

Directed by Robert Clouse

Produced by Fred Weintraub

Written by S. Lee Pogostin and Sylvia Schneble

“In China during The Sung Dynasty; a single golden statue was cast for the use of The Emperor. It indicated seven forbidden acupuncture points. Used in correct sequence they brought about extraordinary sexual vigor and youth. Used incorrectly they brought instant and painful death. Stolen, hidden, lost and rediscovered through the centuries, the statue has come to be known as The Golden Needles of Ecstasy.”

There are some beginnings to movies and books I so wish I had written because they encapsulate perfectly in a few lines what the thing you’re about to read or watch is all about. And those lines of dialog I quoted at the beginning of this review tells you everything you need to know about GOLDEN NEEDLES. There’s this statue. Everybody wants this statue. Everybody is perfectly willing to double-cross, lie, cheat, steal and kill to get possession of same statue. And for 92 minutes that’s exactly what the cast of this movie does.

GOLDEN NEEDLES has been described as a Martial Arts Movie version of “The Maltese Falcon” and that’s valid. Joe Don Baker is Dan, a professional gambler/ex-thief hired by Felicity (Elizabeth Ashley) to steal the statue from gangster Lin Toa (Roy Chiao.) Felicity had a deal with Lin Toa to buy the statue from him but he reneged and so Felicity has no choice but to rely on this somewhat eccentric adventurer. Dan’s partner Kwan (Tony Lee) is killed as a result of the theft so now it’s become personal for Dan. The hunt for the statue takes him all over Hong Kong, with Felicity sometimes on his side, sometimes not. He even has to travel to Los Angeles and hook up with his old buddy Jeff (Jim Kelly) and then back to Hong Kong, dogged by Su Lin (Frances Fong) who has shadowy ties to the police and who also wants the statue.

GOLDEN NEEDLES is one of my favorite 70’s movies for a number of reasons. One: it’s directed by Robert Clouse who directed the classic “Enter The Dragon” “Black Belt Jones” “Gymkata” and “The Big Brawl.” Say what you want about Mr. Clouse but for my money, he was a director who knew how to keep a story moving. GOLDEN NEEDLES hits the ground running and never slows down. The story and characters keep moving as Clouse knows how to do characterization while still advancing the plot.

I really enjoy Joe Don Baker in this one and I think the smartest movie in this movie is to not have him do any kind of martial art. His character is a barroom brawler and it really makes the fight scenes interesting to see him take on karate killers and kung fu masters with his barroom brawler style. He’s a big guy and in the fight scenes he uses that to his advantage, taking a number of hits and kicks from his opponents to get in close where he can do his damage.  Joe Don Baker is also an eccentric actor and he shows it off here. It’s a lot of fun to watch him. Especially in his scenes with Jim Kelly who he hooks up with when the action shifts to Los Angeles. He and Kelly have good chemistry together and the only problem I have with this movie is that when the action goes back to Hong Kong, Jim Kelly is left behind.

This is the movie that made me fall in love with Elizabeth Ashley. She has such a wonderful voice and expressive eyes she owns ever scene she’s in. Burgess Meredith plays The Bad Guy in this movie who wants The Golden Needles and he chews every piece of scenery in sight.

Old School Actress Ann Sothern shows up here as the madam of the gambling joint Dan hangs out in. There’s some fine action sequences such as when Dan breaks into Lin Toa’s place to steal The Golden Needles, a karate battle Jim Kelly has in a Los Angeles health spa and near the end when Joe Don Baker is pursued by a bloodthirsty mob who mistakenly thinks he has killed a child. It’s actually a pretty harrowing scene and one that Joe Don Baker sells as he honestly looks scared shitless as he’s trying to escape from the crowd screaming for his blood.

So should you see GOLDEN NEEDLES? Absolutely yes. Get yourself ready with the snacks of your choice and GOLDEN NEEDLES. Then just sit back and enjoy. GOLDEN NEEDLES is currently available for streaming on Netflix.

92 Minutes

Rated R

Gymkata

1985

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Directed by Robert Clouse

Produced by Fred Wentraub

Written by Charles Robert Carner

Based on “The Terrible Game” by Dan Tyler Moore

There are martial arts movies. And then there are martial arts movies. But there is only one GYMKATA.

There are those who will proclaim that GYMKATA is one of the worst movies ever made. Do not heed their blasphemous words. There is only one GYMKATA. And you will be the poorer if you do not watch it at least once.

All hail GYMKATA because there has never been a martial arts movie like it and we should bless The Gods of Celluloid that once upon a time Hollywood made movies like GYMKATA.

You still doubt me, O unbeliever? Back in June of 2006 Warner Brothers and Amazon.com conducted an Internet poll asking which movie not available on DVD did people most want to see on DVD.  The undisputed winner by a landslide of votes? GYMKATA. Ask fans of martial arts movies for a list of their favorite movies and I’d bet you next month’s rent that GYMKATA will be in the top five. Is it because GYMKATA is such a fantastically well-made movie? Well, actually no. It doesn’t sport a big budget or recognizable name actors. In fact, the star of this movie, American Olympic gymnast Kurt Thomas never made another movie in his life.

So what is it about GYMKATA that makes it such a cult hit? The totally goofy premise of the movie is what sells it to me. As well as the tight, professional direction of Robert Clouse who directed “Golden Needles” “The Big Brawl” “Black Belt Jones” and the “Citizen Kane” of martial arts movies: “Enter The Dragon.” And it’s just plain flat out fun to watch. GYMKATA is one of those movies that I’ve seen maybe a dozen times but every time it comes on TV, damned if I don’t stop what I’m doing to watch.

Jonathan Cabot (Kurt Thomas) is recruited by Mr. Paley (Edward Bell) of The Special Intelligence Agency to play The Game. It’s a survival race held in the small but strategically important country of Parmistan. The Game is a hideously dangerous obstacle course complicated by the players being hunted by Parmistan warriors. Whoever wins The Game is granted their life and may make one request which must be granted by The King. The SIA needs Jonathan to win The Game so that he can request The King to allow the United States to install a satellite monitoring station, part of The U.S.’s “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative. Jonathan’s father, Colonel Cabot (Eric Lawson) played The Game and presumably lost as he never returned to the United States.

Jonathan is trained by two martial arts masters (one of them the dependable Conan Lee) to play The Game. He’s also assisted by Princess Rubali of Parmistan (Tetchie Agbayani) who’s going to give Jonathan an edge by telling him ahead of time the various obstacles he’ll encounter as they change every time The Game is played. Princess Rubali wants Jonathan to win as she doesn’t trust her father’s chief advisor Zamir (Richard Norton.) Zamir not only wants Rubali for himself, he wants to sell out to “the other side” and let them put up their own SDI system.

With the help of his trainers, Jonathan develops “gymkata” a fighting style combining his gymnastics with karate. Can Jonathan win The Game and survive the vicious attempts on his life orchestrated by Zamir? What, are you kidding me?

Now here’s the reason why GYMKATA is such a hoot to watch…there’s a couple of major fight scenes where gymnastic equipment conveniently shows up to enable Our Hero to show off his acrobatic ability. In one fight, Jonathan is being chased by some Bad Guys and just happens to find a bar strategically suspended between two walls that he’s able to use to swing and twirl while he fights. And then there’s the classic battle in the Village of The Damned (It’s where Parmistan dumps all of its insane.) Jonathan is being chased by a hoard of homicidal lunatics, makes a turn onto the village square and lo…there’s a pommel horse! What happens next just has to be seen to be believed. And actually, that entire sequence in the village of crazies is pretty spooky and suspenseful with some really creepy images.

Kurt Thomas actually isn’t that bad an actor. He’s no Robert DeNiro but then again, he’s not trying to be. It’s too bad there wasn’t an “Iron Fist” movie made in the 1980’s as Kurt Thomas would have been absolutely perfect to play Danny Rand/Iron Fist. His acrobatic ability is astounding and it sure looks to me like he’s doing a lot of his stunts.

I also enjoy the spectacularly beautiful Tectchie Agbayani as Princess Rubali. At first, Jonathan thinks she can’t talk because she never says anything to him. As he finds out later on, she can talk. She only does so when she has something important to say. If only more women could be like Princess Rubali.

Bottom line: GYMKATA is massive fun to watch. It’s a great Saturday night movie, especially paired with some of the other martial arts movies I’ve named. GYMKATA is goofy, silly and a cult classic that has come by its reputation honestly. ‘Awesome’ is a word that has become overused in describing everything from a ham sandwich (really, folks? Is any sandwich really ‘awesome?’) to hairstyles. But GYMKATA deserves to be called awesome. The complete movie is available on YouTube and I’ve provided you guys a link below. Watch and enjoy.

90 Minutes

Rated R

Hot Potato

1976

Warner Bros. Pictures

Directed and Written by Oscar Williams

Produced by Fred Weintraub and Paul Heller

Jim Kelly’s “Black Belt Jones” was such a beloved blaxplotation hit and so enjoyed by so many people that over the years I have been frequently asked why a sequel was never made. And I would always answer that there actually was a sequel made as I distinctly remember seeing it in a 42end Street grindhouse back in the late 70’s/early 80’s. But the movie never was billed or publicized as the sequel to “Black Belt Jones” and to be honest, it’s such a dismal and disappointing letdown that word of mouth most likely killed it back then. And for the longest time it wasn’t available on home video on VHS so it never got a chance to be seen even then. I saw it a couple of times of HBO during the 1980’s which kept my memories of it alive.

I was only able to see it again for the first time since then thanks to the Warner Brothers 4 Film Favorites: Urban Action Collection. I got my copy a few years and paid $9.99 for it. I’m fairly certain you can get it for five bucks now. It’s well worth getting for the excellent “Black Belt Jones” “Three The Hard Way” and “Black Samson.” Yeah, HOT POTATO is the real stinker in the bunch but since I’m certain you can get the collection for five bucks at your local Target, I still say it’s worth buying the collection. You get three really great blaxplotation classics for five bucks and to me that’s putting up with one that wouldn’t be worth buying if it were packaged on its own.

HOT POTATO takes Black Belt Jones (Jim Kelly) out of the urban environment of the earlier film. In fact, there’s no characters from the first film here, which is why a lot of folks dispute that this movie actually is a sequel to “Black Belt Jones.” But there are too many people behind the scenes for it to be anything else but. In this one, Jones is charged with rescuing the daughter of an American ambassador. “Black Belt Jones” did hint that Jones worked for the CIA so I go along with him being on the other side of the world in the Asian country of Chang Lan. To help him in his mission, Jones recruits mercenaries Rhino (George Mommelli) Johnny Chicago (Geoffrey Benney) and local police inspector Pamala (Irene Tsu.)

What I don’t go along with is the utter and total lack of charm, wit, talent and humor in HOT POTATO that made “Black Belt Jones” such a wonderful piece of entertainment. There’s a couple of scenes early in the movie that indicate that Johnny Chicago and The Rhino could have been a Monk and Ham style pair of sidekicks but Geoffrey Benney is such a stiff and George Mommelli is such a cartoon character that there is nothing about them that can be taken seriously. George Mommelli really surprised me at how bad he was in this movie as he was so entertaining in other movies I’ve seen him such as Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” and “Phantom of The Paradise.” The Rhino wears a picnic tablecloth as a poncho and for the whole movie his shtick is that he’s a fat, sweaty, uncouth slob. The only thing I liked about his character was that much like the Joe Don Baker character in “Golden Needles” he’s not a martial artist. He’s a barroom brawler and that makes for an interesting contrast in fighting styles during his fight scenes. Johnny Chicago has an intriguing background that is touched upon that due to his wife and daughter being blown up by a car bomb meant for him he has given up on relationships and is now only interested in working for money but nothing much is done with that. As a writer I hate to see characters wasted and these were two characters that really could have been standouts.

The most disappointing thing about HOT POTATO is the fight scenes. And if you can’t depend upon fight scenes in a martial arts movie then you’re screwed. There are numerous fight scenes where the bad guys simply stand there and let Jim Kelly beat up on them. And it doesn’t help that the fight scenes have ridiculous slide whistle sound effects when Kelly leaps through the air or when punches are thrown.

The bad guy (Sam Hiona) has the great name of Carter Rangoon but that’s the only thing he’s got going for him. The final confrontation between him and Black Belt Jones is lacking in any suspense whatsoever and when you see in the credits that Jim Kelly staged his own fight sequences you kinda understand why.

There is no point to talking about the acting is this movie because nobody is even trying to act in anything approaching a level to engage us on even an It’s So Bad It’s Good level.

Let’s cut to the chase here and save us all time. Should you see HOT POTATO? If you had to purchase it by itself, I would say absolutely not. But since it’s packaged along with three really good movies I say put it on and let it play while you go about your household chores. It’s a disappointing movie totally unworthy of the charm and talent of Jim Kelly and everybody associated with it. It further doesn’t help that the music score frequently rips off the familiar “Enter The Dragon” theme song during the poorly choreographed fight scenes to try and remind you of that far better movie.

 87 minutes

Rated PG

 

Black Belt Jones

BLACK BELT JONES

1974

Warner Brothers

Directed by Robert Clouse

Produced by Fred Weintraub

Written by Fred Weintraub and Oscar Williams

When it comes to the subject of martial arts movies there isn’t a sane human being alive that would argue that Bruce Lee was The King. But if there is such a thing as The Prince of Martial Arts movies then that title certainly has to go to Jim Kelly. Playing up the novelty of a black master of karate ensured that African-American audiences in the 1970’s, hungry to see black heroes up on the screen would pack the theaters. And they did. I and my friends must have went to see BLACK BELT JONES at least half a dozen times during its original theatrical run and we weren’t the only ones. Whenever the subject of blaxploitation comes up and I’m asked to recommend titles, BLACK BELT JONES is always one of the first movies I mention. The non-stop action, the humor, the wonderfully 70’s fashions and dialog and of course the charm of Jim Kelly as well as his co-star Gloria Hendry makes this essential to any blaxploitation collection.

Mafia Don Steffano (Andre Philippe) gets word that the city is going to build a glitzy new civic center and he buys up all the land on the proposed site. There’s one more piece of property he needs; The Blackbyrd Karate School owned by Pop Byrd (Scatman Crothers) who won’t sell. Local drug dealer Pinky (Malik Carter) is in The Mob’s pocket and is engaged to force Pop Byrd to sell. Pop Byrd owes Pinky some money and Pinky inflates the debt, offering a deal for Pop Byrd to pay off the I.O.U. with the karate school. Pop Byrd is accidentally killed by Pinky’s henchmen during negotiations. Enter Black Belt Jones (Jim Kelly) a former student of Pop Byrd’s who now works for an unnamed government agency but is hinted to be The CIA. Along with Pop’s beautiful and dangerous daughter Sydney (Gloria Hendry) who is as adept in karate as Jones himself, Black Belt Jones goes after not only Pinky’s gang but Don Steffano himself to avenge Pop Byrd’s death and save the karate school.

For movies like this, you don’t need much of a plot to get things going and one of the strengths of BLACK BELT JONES is that it takes such a simple plot but due to the energy of the actors, the fight scenes, the characters and the splicing together of the blaxplotation and martial arts genres it makes it so much fun to watch.

Jim Kelly himself would never claim to be all that as an actor but he had so much swagger, cool and charm that it more than made up for any lack of acting talent. And there never was a cat who could pull off wearing an afro that big and not have it look ridiculous on screen.

This is the movie that has the fight scene where his cohort Toppy (Alan Weeks) turns lights on and off in the karate school at three second intervals so that the outnumbered Jones can ambush Pinky and his thugs with comedic effect. Listen closely to the comments Pinky makes during the scene and I guarantee you’ll be on the floor laughing. In fact, Malik Carter walks away with the acting honors in this one. Pinky is a wonderful bad guy, full of just as much swagger and charm as Jones himself and he’s got the best dialog of anybody in the movie. Earl Jolly Brown plays one of Pinky’s chief henchmen and you’ll recognize him as being one of Mr. Big’s henchmen in the blaxplotation flavored James Bond movie “Live And Let Die.”

There’s also some very recognizable faces such as Marla Gibbs from “The Jeffersons” and “227.” Ted Lange from “The Love Boat” and Eric Laneuville who seemingly was in just about every movie and guest-starred on every TV show of the 70’s. His name is not one most people recognize but his face is. After a successful acting career he has since gone on to be one of the most talented directors working in television with multiple episodes of dramas such as “Quantum Leap” “Monk” “Lost” and “Everybody Hates Chris” to his credit.

And then there’s Gloria Hendry. Most people remember her as Rosie Carver in “Live And Let Die” but for me BLACK BELT JONES is the role I always think of first when her name is mentioned. I have no idea if she actually was involved in martial arts back then but she sure looks as if she was in this movie. She’s got two terrific fights scenes: the poolroom brawl in which she wallops the piss outta half a dozen of Pinky’s toughs, all of them twice her size and the most famous fight scene in BLACK BELT JONES where she and Jones take on a hoard of enemies at a car wash, battling them in a sea of soap bubbles. It doesn’t hurt that during the fight the only thing Miss Hendry is wearing is a denim shirt that barely covers up her other assets.

What else? Oh, yeah…the absolutely kickass theme song performed by Dennis Coffey. It’s a legendary theme song and rightly so, played over the opening credits while Jones has his first fight scene in a parking lot. It’s a fight scene that has sound effects you just don’t hear anymore. When Jones hits these guys it sounds like somebody whacking a leather couch with a tennis racket.

So should you see BLACK BELT JONES? Yes. Yes. A thousand times YES. Jim Kelly got robbed in “Enter The Dragon” when his character got killed off (they shoulda killed off that stiff John Saxon instead) but Robert Clouse and Fred Weintraub, knowing what they had, more than made up for it by giving him such a fun and exciting star vehicle. BLACK BELT JONES is nothing but fun from start to finish. For those of you Politically Correct People please be advised that there are racial and sexual stereotypes galore and there is frequent use of the N Word. But if you can accept that the movie was made in a less enlightened period and go with it as such, you’ll have a great time watching it.

If you want to see BLACK BELT JONES as well as three other blaxplotation movies of that era: the sequel to BLACK BELT JONES: “Hot Potato” “Three The Hard Way” which has Jim Kelly team up with Jim Brown and Fred Williamson and “Black Samson” next time you hit Target see if you can find the Warner Brothers 4 Film Favorites: Urban Action Collection. I got my copy a few years and paid $9.99 for it. I’m fairly certain you can get it for five bucks now. Even though “Hot Potato” is a big disappointment, the collection is still worth your money. Enjoy.

87 minutes

Rated R