Sunday, I learned that Jim Kelly had lost his battle with cancer on Sat. June 29, 2013 at the age of 67. This was particularly sad news for me, because Kelly’s work basically introduced me to an entire genre of cheesetastic greatness that I hadn’t really been aware of.
You might remember Kelly, and his fabulous afro, from Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon where he was too busy lookin’ good. The role was small, but Kelly stood out enough to carve a career out for himself in the heyday of 70s Blaxplotation. The year after Enter The Dragon, Jim Kelly starred in Black Belt Jones, which is quite possibly my personal favourite So-Bad-It’s-Good movie in existence.
Poppa Byrd (Scatman Crothers) runs a local karate school to help keep the community youth out of trouble. Lately, Pops has returned to his old gambling ways, and leaves the running of the school in the hands of Toppy (Alan Weeks) and top student Quincy (Eric Laneuville). But when local mobster Don Steffano (Andre Phillipe) sends his henchmen Big Tuna (Vincent Barbi) and Blue Eyes (Mel Novak) to pressure on a community drug dealer named Pinky (Malik Carter) to acquire the dojo, things escalate quickly. Pops’ prize student Black Belt Jones (Jim Kelly) must come to their aid and clobber the mob in Black Belt Jones.
In the late 90s I rented this movie for no other reason than the look of the box art. Look at it up there. A blaxplotation kung-fu movie. There was no way that this wouldn’t be one of the tastiest slices of cheddar I ever bit into. I couldn’t even imagine how fantastic it was going to turn out.
This movie has everything you could ever want. Karate! Car chases! Opening credits sequence that features a kung-fu blowout in a parking lot, where the action freeze-frames every time a name comes on the screen! Afros! More Karate! His goddamn name is Black Belt! Nutshots! 70s Funk! Unacceptable-by-today’s-standards dialogue! Bogarts! Poor Dubbing! Girls jumping on a trampoline! Hot Gates on a Train! Shouting OYYYYYYYY! Even more Karate! Social commentary! One liners! Stereotypes! A beach chase leading to a love scene! Editing Mistakes! Broken-Car-Wash-Foam-Fight-Scene! BATMAN, MOTHERFUCKER!
This is one of those movies where, for me, pretty much everything is memorable. It’s on a short list of movies I never need to watch again, because I’ve seen it so many times its basically on a constant loop in my head. Most of those viewings were in rooms full of people watching it along with me. Some for the first time, some for the hundredth, but everyone I’ve ever made watch it has enjoyed the experience. It’s a rare gem where the parts that are supposed to be funny are just as hilarious as the parts that aren’t. Everyone can find something to enjoy here.
It’s not for kids, though. Not anymore, anyway. There’s a distinct lack of gratuitous nudity that normally comes from ’70s B-movies, or Blaxplotation, so I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if it had been considered family friendly at the time of its release. But modern day sensibilities have certainly changed. Much of the dialogue is certainly racist, homophobic and misogynistic. While most of this comes in the form of jokes, I can’t imagine wanting a pre-teen to watch this today, and teens should be keenly aware of how unacceptable many of the attitudes displayed here should be. Of course, if you are old enough, this complete lack of sensitivity just adds to the hilarity.
Of course, as with any 70s movie, the soundtrack is key. Theme from Black Belt Jones by Denis Coffy (or Coffey) is among the funkiest pieces of music to ever appear on screen. It’s got a hook so deep that there’s no possibility of catch-and-release. I’ve had to stop typing about five times so far in the writing of this review just to bob my head… and I’m not even fucking listening to it right now.
Seriously. Just do yourself a favour. Find a copy of this movie, gather up some people–Any people… pull strangers in off the streets if you have to–and give this movie a look. It’s well worth it.
I popped in this VHS for the first time in years this past Sunday, after learning of Jim Kelly’s passing. It was an extremely interesting experience. For the first time ever, the funeral scene–which I once considered to be among the most ridiculous moments in the film, with a line of karate students doing their kata, afros jiggling in the wind–actually felt somber.
Because of Kelly (and his mighty afro that could barely be contained by a black balaclava) I discovered this fantastic genre of film that certainly could have slipped by white-middle-class me unnoticed. After this, I actively sought out Shaft, Superfly, Blacula and many more. Without this movie, I never would have certainly missed Black Dynamite. But even though I love all those movies for similar but different reasons, the triple threat of Black Belt Jones is still king.