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.

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