|Vintage Pulp||Jan 28 2022|
Jim Kelly takes on the mob in hit-and-miss karate adventure.
The blaxploitation/kung fu flick Black Belt Jones premiered in the U.S. today in 1974, but we're sharing the Italian poster for two reasons: this Ermanno Iaia effort is more interesting than the U.S. art; and it's another example of African American stars being erased from Italian promo art. We assume it happened because Italian distributors figured many Italians wouldn't knowingly choose to see a film with a black star. Well, this one featured one of the biggest black stars—martial arts sensation Jim Kelly. He's not widely known today, but during the height of the martial arts craze he was an icon because of his screen charisma and cred. And by cred we mean he won four martial arts championships in 1971 alone, including the world middleweight karate title.
There's no release date for Black Belt Jones in Italy, but probably it played there during the summer of ’74, retitled Johnny lo svelto, or “Johnny quick.” Plotwise the mafia have learned that city of L.A. plans to erect a new civic center, and have bought up all the land at the prospective building site except a karate dojo owned by a martial arts instructor named Papa Byrd—and Papa won't play. Meanwhile, somewhere across town, Kelly is asked by cops to investigate the L.A. mob, who are getting cozy with local politicians and building up so much power they might soon be untouchable. In the tight knit local martial arts community, Kelly and Byrd know each other, so when Byrd turns up dead Kelly is motivated to get to the bottom of the murder.
The movie is partially a burlesque, with bits of slapstick, some salty slang, and many of characters constructed as pure stereotypes—Italian gangsters crying, “Mamma mia!” and that sort of thing. Viewed in a certain frame of mind it's funny, and considering it features an ass-kicking Scatman Crothers (long before getting axed in the chest in The Shining), the red hot Gloria Hendry, and Love Boat bartender Ted Lange as a minor league crook, there's plenty worth seeing here. That includes Kelly's martial arts, which are fun to watch, once you get past a bizarre opening fight shown entirely in slow motion. Kelly's abs are also on regular display, which made the Pulp Intl. girlfriends happy.
So Kelly knows martial arts and looks great, but can he act? Considering the constraints, he does okay. These low budget ’70s movies didn't give stars much chance to sharpen their performances, and they're nearly always poorly paced in terms of dialogue, but he has charisma and his acting matches that of Bruce Lee or any other of the action stars from the period. They weren't hired to do Hamlet, after all. With Kelly at its center Black Belt Jones is worth a watch. And as we said, viewed in a certain frame of mind, it's even sort of good. But by frame of mind, we mean one in which you don't take it too seriously—the filmmakers certainly didn't seem to. We mean that as a compliment.
ItalyLos AngelesBlack Belt JonesThe Love BoatThe ShiningJim KellyGloria HendryTed LangeScatman CrothersErmanno Iaiaposter artcinemablaxploitationmovie review