I’ve been asked by Tambay, with the passing of Jim Kelly on
June 29th at his home in San Diego after a battle with cancer, what Jim Kelly films I would recommend to those who are unfamiliar with his work (and if
you are, I mean like, seriously, where in the hell have you been?).
So as a sort primer to introduce him to the uninitiated, out of the 16 films that he made during his film career, there are three that I
must recommend as “must sees”.
First of all, there is of course 1973’s Enter the Dragon with Bruce Lee (who died just a month before
the film’s release under what I still consider to be mysterious circumstances) and
John Saxon, directed by Robert Clouse (though Lee actually choreographed
and staged the fight sequences in the film).
It wasn’t actually Kelly’s first film. That was the Blaxploitation
classic Melinda (which is, no doubt,
a candidate to be released sometime soon on the Warner Archive DVD-on-demand label) which was released the year
before in 1972.
According to an extensive interview with Kelly with the Number 38 issue of Shock Cinema magazine (which is still available on order from the
magazine), Kelly was hired at first just to train the lead actor, Calvin Lockhart, in some martial arts fighting
for his character in the film. But the producers saw something in Kelly and wound
up giving him a supporting role in the
But as for Dragon, Kelly was, literally, a last minute addition.
Originally, another actor was supposed to play the role of Williams in the film, but
was let go at the last minute. And so the producers were desperately looking for a
black actor who was an expert in martial arts to replace Williams in a project that was to start
shooting the following week.
Kelly’s agent had him rush to Warner Bros to meet with
the producers and Clouse, and they practically offered him the part right then and
there, from the moment he walked in the door. The right man, at the right time
for the right film.
But for many, Kelly was a charismatic new face, full of
swagger and supreme self-confidence, not in only martial arts, but in the bedroom
as well (those of you who know the film, know exactly what I’m talking about). We had never seen a genuine black martial
artist on the screen before, and it was definitely not only exciting, but incredibly
inspiring as well.
Of course Dragon has never been unavailable on video, and
has been reissued and remastered several times – most recently, just last month, when the totally remastered 40th Anniversary Blu-ray DVD from Warmers Home
Video came out.
In fact, one reviewer of this new release, with its three
hours worth of extras and other special features, said that, this new Blu-ray “has quite simply never looked better; I
seriously doubt it could look much better than it does here. It not only
outclasses, out-paces and out-maneuvers its earlier 2007 Blu-ray counterpart
and that… it’s the definitive presentation of Enter the Dragon.“
Which means you
have no excuse not to get it. Needless to say I already have it.
The success of Dragon made way for Kelly’s first starring
role, and my second recommendation in Black
Belt Jones, which was essentially an old fashioned B-movie, but an incredibly
entertaining one just the same.
It came from the same producers and director of Enter The Dragon. The film, never for one moment, takes itself seriously. Taking
a tried and true old B western movie premise of bad guys after the deed to the
ranch, the film centers around a group of Mafia goons and their black gangster
pawns, who try to take over a martial arts school, as the property will
soon become valuable.
The thin plot framework however is an excuse for some
wonderful martial arts action, not only by Kelly, but his co-star Gloria Hendry as well (pictured above; and
who admittedly is a little stiff in the film, showing signs of a crash course on martial
arts during pre-production, but who does the job nevertheless).
It’s goofy, exciting, filled with laughs, but more importantly, showed that Kelly could hold his own as a leading man (the title sequence from Jones below gives a really good idea of the light heartedness and terrific martial
arts fight sequences throughout the film).
And this leads to the third film which I recommend – a
film I mentioned yesterday, calling it the “Ultimate Blaxploitation film” in Three The Hard Way.
Directed by Gordon Parks Jr., the son of legendary photographer, film director
and all-around renaissance man, Gordon Parks, and who directed Superfly and Aaron Loves Angela (a sadly overlooked film), and who tragically died in a plane crash
while scouting locations for a film project in 1979, Three The Hard Way film is nutty, yet truly
ambitious in its scope.
At the time, the most expensive Blaxploitation film when
it came out in 1974, the James Bondian action thriller tells of three friends (Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and Kelly)
who discover a plot to literally kill every single black person in the U.S.
The plan is hatched by a crazed white supremacist with
his own private army, who has developed, for him, a special chemical in which he
plans to contaminate the nation’s water supply in three different locations
around the country that won’t affect white people, but will give every black person
sickle cell anemia.
Sounds farfetched? Sure. But it’s totally in keeping with
some villain’s mad scheme to totally dominate the world in any James Bond film.
And besides the idea of three black men saving the entire black race is too delicious and wonderful to ignore. You think any studio would make a film like that today? Right, exactly!
Also considering the rise of extremist groups such as the
Tea Party, which is not too dissimilar to the white supremacist group in the film
(on second thought, they’re exactly like the group in the film), as well as last week’s Supreme Court decision disemboweling the
Voting Rights Act, among other recent
legal actions weakening Civil Rights laws, and just our natural paranoia anyway,
I argue that Three The Hard Way is just as relevant today (maybe even more so) than it was when it first came out.
Besides, you couldn’t make this film today, since I can’t
think of three hyper masculine Alpha Male black actors like Brown, Williamson
and Kelly today (or three tough as nails, take no prisoners black actresses for
that matter) who could play the leads in the film.
But Kelly goes up against the manliest black men in cinema and holds up his own as their equal in every way.
And fortunately, both Three the Hard Way and Black Belt
Jones are available together on an Urban
Collection Film Favorites DVD available on Warner Home Video.
So now you have no excuse not to know who Jim Kelly is, as well as his on-screen work, why he is (not was) so important to so many people around the globe, and
why he will always have a lasting impact.
Here’s the clip from Black Belt Jones: