Bruce Lee mania hit a peak in America with the release of the movie Enter the Dragon hard upon his early death in 1973. In Hong Kong, a scramble immediately started to find a suitable replacement, giving us the questionable pleasures of movies like Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger, Bruce Lee, We Miss You, even The Clones of Bruce Lee; and actors with names like Bruce Le, Bruce Li, and Dragon Lee. There was a similar (though much more understated) quest here in America, as director Robert Clouse and producer Fred Weintraub would spend the next twenty-five years trying to duplicate the success of Enter the Dragon, working with stars like Jackie Chan, Cynthia Rothrock, and a man who didn't survive the storyline of Dragon but outlived its star: Jim Kelly.
A middleweight Karate champion in 1971, Kelly was a logical choice for Clouse and Weintraub to pin their hopes upon - he knew the moves, could be blindingly fast, and had a certain charm and good screen presence. It was much easier to imagine Kelly dispatching wave upon wave of surly goons than fellow Dragon co-star, John Saxon, who would instead go on to be one of the unheralded Kings of B-Movies.
So in the afterglow of Dragon and with the popularity of the black-oriented action flick, termed "blaxploitation", what could be more natural than a star vehicle for Jim Kelly, in which he could sock it to The Man and look Good* doing it?
After a somewhat confusing opening in which two Mob goons open a secret vault inside a wine vat for a guy with a briefcase full of money and show him some incriminating photos - we never see the photos, they remain as mysterious as the contents of Marcellus Wallace's briefcase - the goons kill the guy because he's working undercover for some good guy agency (again, we are never told who they are). The mission lead curses and says "Get me Black Belt!"
Black Belt (Jim Kelly, as if I needed to tell you that) is at the taping of some talk show where the guest is a South American diplomat, and a good thing he's there, too, as the diplomat's bodyguard has failed to notice the gang of assassins waiting in the parking lot. Not so Black Belt, who special delivers the standard six-pack of whup-ass upon them, taking care to toss most of them through the suspiciously breakable windows of a nearby police car. Extra points are awarded for Jones picking up one of the assassin's guns and shooting an escaping felon in the ass. Even more extra points are awarded for the cop who appears, coffee cup in hand, to look in amazement at the bodies littering his cruiser while Jones scoots off in his phat yellow sports car.
Jones, incidentally, declines the Mob/vineyard job - the mysterious Good Guy Agency he works for has already lost three men in there, and he wisely does not want to be number four.
Things get a bit confused from there, as we meet various characters. The Mob guys get wind of a new civic center being built in a few years, and want to buy up as much of the land as possible. A black racketeer named Pinky (Malik Carter) brutalizes some young radicals who want to shoot him for being a drug pusher. Papa Byrd (Scatman Crothers in an absurd toupee) runs a karate school in the inner city. (Two young girls hang outside the front door and flail their arms comically and make karate sounds - I was hoping for a "Master! They're dissing our school!" moment, but the flick's not that self-mocking).
What do all these have to do with each other? Byrd's dojo is in the exact center of the projected construction; Byrd is a gambler, in debt to Pinky for a cool grand; Pinky has been skimming off the Mob's take of his rackets; so the Mob tells Pinky they either want their money (a quarter of a million) or Byrd's building.
Now that all the exposition is out of the way, it's time for some ass-kicking! Pinky and his thugs arrive at the dojo to throw their weight around, but instead find themselves thrown around. Though the Scatman can't do too much in this fight scene, it is nonetheless a gas to see him in the thick of a fight, whipping bad guy butt. Pinky swears vengeance and limps out.
Byrd's right-hand man and head teacher, Toppy (Alan Weeks) realizes that Pinky is serious - and Papa Byrd needs a serious intervention- so he calls in Byrd's best student... Black Belt Jones! As Byrd sneaks out that night to play cards, Pinky and his thugs return under cover of darkness, only to have Jones hand them their own asses for use as festive party hats.
Pinky's answer to this is to track down Byrd at a local card game and rough him up - unfortunately killing the old man in the process. All Pinky now knows is that the building is in the name of someone named Sidney, and the Mob and Jones aren't too happy. To take care of Jones, Pinky imports some 'Bogarts' defined, for the sake of the local Don (and whitebread audience members) as "treacherous niggas".
Jones uses his contacts at the Mystery Agency to seek out Sidney. Turns out it's Sydney with a 'y'... Byrd's daughter from his first marriage (Gloria Hendry), and she turns up for the funeral, ready to ask some hard questions. Jones basically tells her not to worry her pretty little head about it and sends her to her hotel with Quincy (Eric Laneuville), his young pal and the dojo's semi-mascot. Sydney, of course, wraps him around her little finger and convinces him to take her to Pinky's Pool Parlor and Secret Headquarters. Receiving the mandatory attitude from Pinky's thugs, Sydney kicks off her platform heels and proceeds to use the thugs as cleaning utensils, mopping up the joint with them.
Snce Pinky returns with his brand-new Bogarts and finds his thugs hugging a pool table and moaning to themselves, he heads immediately to the dojo and lets the Bogarts dish out some pain on his behalf. Then he takes Quincy hostage and demands a quarter of a million dollars in ransom. Time for another call to Jones, who is having lunch with Sydney and discussing the future of the school. At the bad news, Jones whips one of his many pistols out of his briefcase and instructs Sydney to "Stay here... do the dishes or something." This causes Sydney to whip out one of the other pistols and fire away at the plates, shattering them all. "They're done," she says. Jones is cool, but sensible. He takes her along.
He also has a plan that will not only net them the cash needed for Quincy's ransom, but will get his boss off his back about the Mob Vineyard thing. Jones stages a raid on the Vineyard, aided only by Sydney and a crack team of nubile teenage gymnasts (Normally, for a plot point like this, I would say watch the movie. It makes more sense in context, but no, it doesn't, really. These babes seem to spend all their time jumping on a trampoline outside Jones' swank beach house, like a primitive forebear of The Man Show). That Jones will also wind up having to 'fu about a hundred stuntmen goes without saying.
Jones then hands over the ransom to Pinky - and when has a bad guy ever stood by his word in these circumstances? Pinky's street-level thugs intend to beat Jones to death while a sawed-off shotgun is held to Quincy's head; ah, but when has a plucky female co-star ever stayed in the car like she was told in these circumstances? Sydney smacks Mr. Shotgun around and it's kicks upside the head for everybody! People who normally complain about the mass fights in these movies, where opponents hang back, waiting for an opening and assault the hero one by one, rather than piling on him en masse, might appreciate this fight, as Jones takes it to a nearby train car; Standing in the aisle between seats, Jones forces them to take him on single file. Needless to say, damn near every thug winds up with his head through some broken windows.
Oh, but Jones isn't finished yet - you see, the reason the Mob was hiding all that money in a wine vat was because it was marked; a phone call to the Mob lieutenant in charge of Watts, Big Tuna (a dubbed Vincent Barbi), ensures that when Pinky tries to use his ransom money to pay off the Mob, they'll recognize the money as their own and try to make Pinky eat some billiard balls. Pinky, however, has the presence of mind to point out that his thugs are not of the nubile gymnast variety, and he and Tuna join forces to bring down Jones.
Meanwhile, Jones and Sydney take a walk on the beach, and we are treated to film footage of the courtship rituals of the American Karate Fighter, which involves much kicking, slapping, minor vandalism, and general terrorizing of the populace.
The next day, Pinky and Big Tuna stage their raid on the beach house, resulting in a chase scene leading to a central staging area for the city's garbage trucks. Jones, wearing only his boxers (and Sydney, wearing only one of Jones' shirts) have to take on the combined entourages of the two gangsters. Needless to say, there is no real competition, even with the might of the Bogarts, after Jones kung-fu's the place's carwash controls and everyone winds up fighting waist-high in soap bubbles. The end.
While not quite up to the quality of its predecessor, Black Belt Jones is good-looking, well-acted and above all, fun. Though the tenor of the events is serious, the movie never loses sight of the fact that we are here, basically, to see bad guys get the holy crap kicked out of them, and this is served up to us as often as possible. There is even humor injected into the fight scenes, though admittedly this is of the guy-kicked-in-the-testicles variety. One wracked thug in the first dojo fight keeps trying to pull himself into a chair to catch his breath; he almost makes it several times, only to have some anonymous foot kick him upside the head each time. Then there's the guy in the last fight scene that Gloria Hendry must whack in the nuts half a hundred times, until tenderly helping him into the back of the garbage truck where all the defeated bad guys are collecting. "Poor baby!".
Pinky has a few good running gags; he keeps adding to the value of Papa Byrd's IOU by simply adding more pencil strokes to it: it goes from $1000 to $11,000 to $44,000 to... well, you get the idea. He's really fond of the non-sequitur, "I'm from New Orleans! You can't (fill in what someone just tried to do to him) me!" Citizenship in New Orleans apparently bestows invulnerability from certain things. The one gag missing is the usual one where the hero's real name is revealed - after all, naming one's baby "Black Belt" would be far too prescient of his parents. Usually, in such cases, the hero's real name is Eustace or Lysander or Vivian or Primrose - but then, the hero usually isn't Jim Kelly, who would doubtless kick your ass off before you got to the second syllable. It probably goes without saying that his friends call him "Belt" for short.
As mentioned before, Kelly is quite good, but Clouse and Weintraub are trying a bit too hard to use him to remind us of Lee, having him vent some unearthly Lee-like howls during his fight scenes. There is also one move he uses twice, which is the polar opposite of the logical, single-file fight I outlined earlier; Jones, encircled by thugs, does a sort of spinning butterfly kick, eventually whomping all the bad guys. It's a move more at home in figure skating than a street fight, and it's one of the few times in the film you actually notice the opponents waiting patiently to get hit.
Still, Kelly makes it all look, if not particularly easy, good. You start to wonder just what happened to the man's career. Not too long after this, Kelly was making Al Adamson movies, and it's a rare actor that walk unscathed out of that dark valley. All in all, Kelly and Black Belt Jones make for a fine intro to the world of the black action film; neither as strident as some nor as impoverished as others, the movie's generally light tone can ease the uninitiated - or terminally suburban - viewer into the realm of its grittier, tougher brethren.