Scatman Crothers

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

The Shining

1980

Warner Bros.

Directed and Produced by Stanley Kubrick

Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson

Based on the novel “The Shining” by Stephen King

Hard as it to believe nowadays when THE SHINING is considered to be a horror masterpiece and one of Stanley Kubrick’s finest films that it really wasn’t all that well received when it had its original theatrical run. Don’t get me wrong, it made its money back and in fact did quite well at the box office. But Stephen King said that Stanley Kubrick had taken all the bite out of his story, deliberately downplaying the supernatural elements of the book and the theme of family disintegration caused by alcoholism that were so important and central to the book King wrote. Some critics said the movie’s pace was too slow. Others said that Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall were too eccentric and quirky as actors for the roles of Jack and Wendy Torrance. And African-Americans groups called for a boycott of the movie seeing as how the only character to be killed onscreen is Dick Hallorann, played wonderfully by Scatman Crothers.

But over the years THE SHINING has been re-watched, discussed, debated and has emerged a winner.  I don’t think it’s far off the mark for me to say that it’s become to Halloween what “It’s A Wonderful Life” is to Christmas. And whenever lists of The Scariest Movies Of All Time are made, THE SHINING definitely is in the top ten and quite often in the top five.

Mind you, we’re talking about a movie that has no CGI monsters, no gore and no graphically gratuitous violence. But it’s a movie that has been consistently described as downright terrifying. It’s also sparked an immense amount of speculation as to what it’s really about. Don’t believe me? Just for one example check out Rob Ager’s insanely in-depth analysis of THE SHINING. Just make sure you eat something and go to bathroom before you do so. You’ll be awhile reading that sucker, trust me.

Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is an aspiring writer who takes a job as winter caretaker of The Overlook Hotel, an isolated mountain resort located in Colorado. Jack hopes that the isolation of being stuck in the hotel for the winter will help him reconnect with his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) his five year old son Danny (Danny Lloyd) and help him battle his alcoholism which has led to physical abuse of his son and emotional abuse of his wife.

Danny possesses psychic abilities and is able to see visions of the past and future. It is through these terrifying visions that Danny knows that The Overlook Hotel is haunted. This is confirmed when during a tour of the hotel,  Danny meets Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) who has powerful psychic powers of his own. Dick calls it “The Shining” and informs Danny that he’s going to see things in the hotel but that they can’t hurt him. Boy, did he call that one wrong.

In the novel version it’s made clear by Stephen King that The Overlook Hotel has achieved some kind of malevolent sentience and lusts after Danny’s power to enhance its own. The Overlook uses Jack to get to his son but in the movie version, it’s clearly Jack that the hotel wants. Danny’s just an afterthought. This gives the movie a whole new slant since it’s not long after the Torrance family arrives at The Overlook that Jack promptly goes crazy.

And it’s here where I can understand the grumbles over Jack Nicholson playing Jack Torrance since the guy looks kinda wacky even before The Overlook starts playing mindgames with him. Even though he’s supposed to be the caretaker we never see him doing any of the maintenance work he’s supposed to be doing. It’s Wendy who does all of that while Jack is having conversations with a ghostly bartender (Joe Turkel) and long talks in the men’s room with the ghost of the hotel’s previous caretaker, Delbert Grady (Philip Stone) who chopped up his wife and two daughters with a fire ax then stuck a shotgun in his mouth and blew his head to pieces.

But let’s face it, you want to get somebody to play crazy in your movie, especially back in the 70’s and 80’s you get Jack Nicholson. Nobody could play crazy so convincingly and yet be so entertaining. There are moments in THE SHINING that are horrifying yet hilarious and Jack Nicholson is firmly at the center of those scenes. Shelley Duvall really doesn’t have much to do but be terrified by her husband for most of the movie and then by The Overlook itself at the conclusion but she gets to have what is without a doubt for me the most blood-freezing moment of the movie when she discovers what her husband has been writing all day long, every day for weeks.

Scatman Crothers has a really nice scene with Danny Lloyd where they talk about their shared ability but let’s be real, in this movie Dick Hallorann’s only purpose is to provide an escape vehicle for Wendy and Danny at the movie’s end.

But outside of Jack Nicholson’s performance, nobody ever really talks about the acting in THE SHINING, good as it is. No, people talk about images that now have become iconic horror classics: the elevator doors that slowly open to release a tidal wave of blood into a hotel corridor. Danny riding his Big Wheel through the hotel. The half-open door of Room 237. Jack sticking his face in the hole he’s just chopped in a locked door and squealing with manic delight, “Here’s Johnny!” Danny running through the hedge maze in the middle of a snowstorm trying to escape his deranged father who is chasing him with a bloody axe. The man in the bear costume. Danny with a huge knife in his hand, writing ‘Redrum’ on a door. The Grady twins who invite Danny to come play with them. The photograph of the 1921 July 4th Overlook Ball.

I love haunted house stories and I consider both the book and movie versions of THE SHINING to be right up there with the best of haunted house stories. It couldn’t have a better pedigree than to be directed by Stanley Kubrick who is the last person I would have picked to direct THE SHINING but damn if he didn’t do an excellent job. No, it’s not the book. There’s a tremendous amount of material that Kubrick and his co-screenplay writer stripped away but I didn’t mind. THE SHINING is one of those odd movie adaptations where even though most of the subplots and character exposition is gone, the core of what makes the story work is still there.

So should you see THE SHINING? Chances are you’ve seen it already. I don’t think I know anybody who hasn’t seen it at least once. But if by some chance you haven’t then you’ve picked the best time of the year to catch up. Trust me on this, THE SHINING is a movie that truly deserves its reputation as a horror masterpiece.

142 minutes

Rated R