Vintage Pulp Jan 28 2022
A MAN OF ACTION
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.
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History Rewind
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
October 02
1919—Wilson Suffers Stroke
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson suffers a massive stroke, leaving him partially paralyzed. He is confined to bed for weeks, but eventually resumes his duties, though his participation is little more than perfunctory. Wilson remains disabled throughout the remainder of his term in office, and the rest of his life.
1968—Massacre in Mexico
Ten days before the opening of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, a peaceful student demonstration ends in the Tlatelolco Massacre. 200 to 300 students are gunned down, and to this day there is no consensus about how or why the shooting began.
October 01
1910—Los Angeles Times Bombed
A massive dynamite bomb destroys the Los Angeles Times building in downtown Los Angeles, California, killing 21 people. Police arrest James B. McNamara and his brother John J. McNamara. Though the brothers are represented by the era's most famous lawyer, Clarence Darrow, of Scopes Monkey Trial fame, they eventually plead guilty. James is convicted and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. His brother John is convicted of a separate bombing of the Llewellyn Iron Works and also sent to prison.
1975—Ali Defeats Frazier in Manila
In the Philippines, an epic heavyweight boxing match known as the Thrilla in Manila takes place between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. It is the third, final and most brutal match between the two, and Ali wins by TKO in the fourteenth round.
September 30
1955—James Dean Dies in Auto Accident
American actor James Dean, who appeared in the films Giant, East of Eden, and the iconic Rebel without a Cause, dies in an auto accident at age 24 when his Porsche 550 Spyder is hit head-on by a larger Ford coupe. The driver of the Ford had been trying to make a left turn across the rural highway U.S. Route 466 and never saw Dean's small sports car approaching.
1962—Chavez Founds UFW
Mexican-American farm worker César Chávez founds the United Farm Workers in California. His strikes, marches and boycotts eventually result in improved working conditions for manual farm laborers and today his birthday is celebrated as a holiday in eight U.S. states.
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