Top government agent Cleopatra Jones takes on the local drug cartel run by Shelley Winters, while her boyfriend runs a halfway house for recovering addicts. Cleo is aided by the kung fu fighting Johnson Brothers, some fabulous outfits and her magnificent afro.
Even the big studios could dig it after the runaway success of ‘Shaft’ (1972) and Warner Bros decided to put their money on ex-model Tamara Dobson as a cross between a female James Bond and a streetwise cop. Unfortunately, there’s far more ‘cop’ than ‘Bond’ and the result is a strange mixture of a movie; part camp and part social drama.
The film opens with Cleo burning some poppy fields in Turkey. Her boyfriend’s halfway house is raided by local law enforcement who make it very clear they ain’t down with the brothers. All this is very serious. It stops short of showing the addicts being brutalised by the cops but it comes pretty close. But in between these two sequences we meet a shrieking Shelley Winters as lesbian drug dealer Mama, camping it up for all she’s worth in a series of silly wigs and threatening permanent hearing damage to anyone nearby. Or far away, for that matter. Winters seems to think she’s in a different movie completely; an opinion obviously shared by jive-talking Antonio Fargas as one of her lieutenants, basically auditioning for the role of Huggy Bear in the ‘Starsky and Hutch’ TV show. Another familiar face is Dan Frazer as the worried, straight arrow police chief; a role he also tackled to great effect in 117 episodes of ‘Kojak’.There are some good sequences though; a car chase through a flooded storm drain, a shoot out at the airport (although the kung fu moves are pretty unconvincing). Cleo’s outfits are fairly bizarre and, when she gets out of her car, part of the roof rises so it doesn’t squash her afro. But she does use her car phone whilst driving (naughty!) and the plotting is really ‘by the numbers’ and predictable. The climax is even set in that staple of 70s’ US cop shows; the junkyard filled with car wrecks.
But it’s entertaining enough and is in a whole different league from some of the dire blaxploitation dreck of the time, such as the appalling ‘Blackenstein’ (1974). Tamara returned in ‘Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold’ (1975), which apparently increased the kung fu and ‘Bond’ elements. Hopefully, this means more of the Johnson brothers, played by the charismatic Albert Popwell and Caro Kenyatta. Never heard of them? Well, I guarantee that you’ve seen Popwell. He was the lucky punk lying in a pool of blood asking himself if Eastwood had fired six bullets or only 5…
The Bionic Boy/El Nino Bionico (1977) – Mark David Welsh