Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1975)

Cleopatra_Jones_and_the_Casino_of_Gold_(1975)‘Oh, wow, man; this place is becoming a trip.’

Super sexy secret agent Cleopatra Jones swaps the mean streets of L.A. for the mean streets of Hong Kong, when one of her friends goes missing on a job. In no time at all, she’s heading up a mission to take down a mysterious drug dealing kingpin and her gambling empire.

Superior sequel to the original Blaxploitation hit ‘Cleopatra Jones’ (1973), which sees everything ramped up to a higher level, thanks to an international co-production between the American backers and legendary Hong Jong film producer Run Run Shaw. Ex-model Tamara Dobson returns in the title role, but she still hasn’t quite got the natural delivery of a born actress. She does have some nifty moves though (even if stunt doubles take over from time to time) and looks fab in a series of outlandish outfits, rocking a fox fur and shotgun combination, although where the weapon is concealed at one stage is a bit of a mystery. She assisted by the returning Johnson Brothers, martial artists played by Caro Kenyatta and the always entertaining Albert Popwell. Norman Fell also scores high as ‘the man from the ministry’, trying to reign in Dobson when he’s perfectly aware that she’s a bad mammajamma who gets the job done when no one else can.

The decent budget gives the film a greater stamp of quality than its predecessor, and the full-on last 20 minutes is one seriously ridiculous action set piece after another. But where the film really scores is in the casting of Stella Stevens as the Cleo’s nemesis. She’s better remembered these days for playing ditzy blondes in pictures like Jerry Lewis’ ‘The Nutty Professor’ (1963), Elvis flick ‘Girls! Girls! Girls!’ (1962) and Matt Helm spy spoof ‘The Silencers’ (1966). In later years she carved out a respectable TV career with guests slots on such wallpaper shows as ‘The Love Boat’, ‘Hart to Hart’, ‘Fantasy Island’ and ‘Highway to Heaven’. But, in between, she’d won great reviews as the female lead of Sam Peckinpah’s ‘The Ballad of Cable Hogue’ (1970) and here she’s an absolute revelation, in a way striking as much of a blow for Women’s Liberation as Dobson does on the right side of the law.


Cleo hadn’t quite got the hang of ‘dress down Friday’…

It’s not just her imperious presence as the ice-cold hearted dragon lady, she’s simply terrific with a sword in the combat scenes too. It’s quite obvious that she’s doing almost all her own stunt work, and that allows director Charles (‘Chuck’) Bail a greater freedom with the camera in those scenes that he would have enjoyed with a stunt double. Whether her proficiency with the blade was one of the reasons she was cast, or whether she picked it up on set is unrecorded, but she’s absolutely stunning.

Perhaps such physical ability might not seem so remarkable these days, when actors spend months in training before a big action role, but, given the era when this film was made, it’s seriously unlikely that Stevens enjoyed that kind of luxury. Although if you need to train in fighting techniques, obviously the Hong Kong film industry is a good place to start!

Unfortunately, the script tends to let things down, and robs the picture of any real personality. At one point a car chase takes the familiar route through a fruit stand in the middle of the street, and this is emblematic of the general lack of originality on display. It was probably this, along with some slow pacing, that derailed it at the big office, and nuked the idea of a third in the series.

A good looking, solid, entertaining ride, but somehow there’s a sense that it could have been so much more.

TNT Jackson (1974)

TNT Jackson (1974)‘You want it black, you got it black!’

When TNT Jackson’s no good brother disappears in Hong Kong, she’s on the first plane out. It turns out he became involved with the local drug barons and ended up on the wrong end of a kung fu punch. This is bad news for the mobsters as TNT is a one mama massacre squad…

Jeanne Bell was one of the first African-American centrefolds in Playboy and enjoyed a brief movie career afterwards, even appearing in Scorsese’s ‘Mean Streets’ (1973). This film was her only leading role and it’s not surprising. She wasn’t terrible in front of the camera by any means but she lacked the personality and presence of contemporaries Tamara Dobson (‘Cleopatra Jones’) and Pam Grier (Foxy Brown). Of course, it didn’t help that her starring vehicle was a no budget slice of ham-fisted exploitation, mostly shot in the Philippines.

The original script was penned by actor Dick Miller (‘A Bucket of Blood’ (1959)), who is familiar now from many cameos in big budget horror and science fiction pictures. He had a long association with producer-director Roger Corman, who provided some of the financial backing for this, but completely rewrote Miller’s script. Filming was handled by veteran director Cirio H Santiago (‘Stryker’ (1983), and ‘Caged Heat II: Stripped of Freedom’ (1984) among many others). Santiago’s work has recently been championed by Quentin Tarantino as classic examples of ‘Grindhouse’ cinema.

TNT Jackson (1974)

‘Watch it! That one almost hit me!’

So, is this an enjoyable example of mid-70s ‘Blaxpoliation’? Not really. It’s the sort of film where TNT asks one person for directions and then gets jumped a few moments later by half a dozen Kung Fu goons. For no apparent reason. Indeed, most of the dialogue scenes are chopped short so we can get on to the next action scene. As a result the storyline is incoherent, but the basic plot so simplistic that it’s not hard to follow.

But there are some compensations. TNT has a great attitude; she’s permanently pissed off at everyone. That means we get some great dialogue, which Bell handles pretty well. “TNT working for the pigs?” she snarls at one point. Unfortunately, a film like this stands or falls on the combat sequences and, being charitable, these are pretty poor. Awful, in fact. Bell is plainly not a martial artist and her climactic face-off with co-star Stan Shaw (who was) is shot mostly from overhead in an effort to disguise the introduction of stunt doubles. The problem is that the doubles don’t have any great moves either! In fact, it’s all so underwhelming that at one point we cut to another fight between two of the lesser characters.

This is exploitation cinema at its most basic. I wasn’t exactly expecting a complex narrative, but this story is as simplistic as it gets. The film was obviously shot quickly and on the cheap and it has a relentless atmosphere of casual sleaze. All the characters know Kung Fu but don’t seem to know it all that well.

TNT did not return for further adventures.

Dr Black Mr. Hyde (1976)

Dr Black Mr Hyde (1976)‘This is the last fix you’re ever gonna get from this honky, you dig?’

A brilliant black medical doctor researching a cure for liver disease becomes impatient to try out his new drug. After experimenting on a dying patient with dubious results, he decides to inject himself, but the formula turns him into a psychotic white man.

The last knockings of the brief Blaxploitation horror cycle finds all round good guy Bernie Casey stepping into the well worn shoes of Henry Jekyll (here called Henry Pryde – ha!) and following the usual path to hell, via fornication with prostitutes (well, he tries) and murder (which he manages). The theme of a righteous dude becoming an evil white man provides wonderful opportunities for both social commentary and biting satire but the filmmakers just ignore all that and instead deliver a tedious, by-the-numbers horror flick. A lot of sequences just play as poor copies of scenes from much better films and story development just descends into mindless nudity and violence, but not in a way that is remotely interesting.

One of the main problems here is Casey. He was certainly a capable actor with a strong presence, whose screen appearances include Felix Leiter in ‘Never Say Never Again’ (1983), ‘The Martian Chronicles’ (1979) and ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’ (1989): ‘…what you’re telling me, essentially, is that Napoleon was a short, dead dude.’ But here he just blatantly ‘phones it in’, looking barely awake in most of the early scenes. He’s assisted in the lab by Rosalind Cash from ‘The Omega Man’ (1971) but, although the characters are apparently romantically involved, there have little interaction and there’s certainly no chemistry in the lab (apart from what’s going on in the Doc’s toy test tube set, of course).

Dr Black Mr Hyde (1976)

When Perms Go Wrong

SFX are almost non-existent and the ‘Hyde’ makeup seems to consist mostly of sprinkling Casey with flour and sticking cotton wool in his cheeks like Marlon Brando in ‘The Godfather’ (1972). Rather bizarrely, this was some early work by Oscar winning technical supremo Stan Winston! Robert Louis Stevenson receives no credit at all for the original story but probably wasn’t much bothered given the results on display here.

Blaxploitation horror movies were few in number. In theory, you’d think they’d have some entertainment value all these years later but the truth is that they were restricted by tiny budgets and technical limitations, and are really pretty dull. ‘Blacula’ (1972) is probably the best of the bunch and the worst, without a doubt, is ‘Blackenstein’ (1974), a film which almost sent me into a boredom-related coma. At least this isn’t that bad.

Cleopatra Jones (1973)

‘See you around, superhonky!’

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’.

Cleo was still struggling with the concepts of undercover work...

Cleo was still struggling with the concepts of undercover work…

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…

Buy ‘Cleopatra Jones’ here