By Chuck Francisco
July 03, 2013 Source: Mania.com
On Sunday evening the social media universe's perverse cult cinema corners lit up like a Griswold Family Christmas Tree, singing the lament of blaxploitation martial arts actor (and quality human being) Jim Kelly. Though you may not instantly recognize the name, you know the man. The charismatic Kelly came into the opportunity of a lifetime when Rockne Tarkington dropped out of Enter the Dragon at the last moment, and he was brought on to breathe cool badassery into the role of Williams. In the wake of Dragon's massive success, Kelly was trumpeted as the first black martial arts star, featuring in a number of entertaining and explosive flicks throughout the 70's. He never made the jump to mainstream movies and after the blaxploitation well dried up in the 80's, Kelly fell back on his other passion; tennis. Having been a professional tennis player in his youth, he easily transitioned into the role of instructor. But he never faded fully from the scene, making infrequent convention appearances which saw his table mobbed with adoring martial arts film fans.
A number of his movies are worth your precious time and almighty dollar, though some are harder to come by then others. Fearless Mania editor Bob Trate delved into the newest release of Enter The Dragon (the 40th Anniversary edition) a few weeks ago for DVD Shopping Bag, and while it is a bit on the pricey side, everyone should own a copy of this film. It stands among the annals of required viewing, possibly taking the top spot for martial arts films. Kelly is Williams, an American martial arts instructor who flees the country after having to defend himself against two racist white cops. Along with John Saxon's character Roper (another American) they were meant to open the film up to US audiences (American studios were fearful Bruce Lee couldn't carry the film on his own- I know, right?). Kelly's cool charisma is best showcased and remember in Williams death sequence, where he delivers his two most iconic lines: (in response to how he would face defeat) "When it comes, I won't even notice: I'll be too busy looking good" and "Man, you come right out of a comic book!".
1974, the year after Enter the Dragon, saw the release of Jim Kelly's first vehicle film: Black Belt Jones. Produced by the same man who discovered him for Bruce Lee's film, Fred Weintraub. Black Belt Jones featured Kelly as a vengeance seeking karate master, who teams up with the equally skilled daughter of his old friend Pop Byrd, in a bid to clobber the mob for the murder of her father and his friend. There are elements of crime drama and plenty of underhanded shyster dealings, but Black Belt Jones was not very well received (I personally think it's rockin'). That's ok though as that same year Kelly would team up with Fred The Hammer Williamson and Jim Brown, for what is perhaps the best blaxploitation film ever made: Three the Hard Way.
To properly frame the scene for those not overly familiar with the 70's African American cinema: the trio of Williams, Kelly, and Brown were absolutely the most bad ass black action starts of the era. Three the Hard Way marked the first film they would collaborate on, after which they mixed and match while occasionally calling on Richard Roundtee (Shaft) to further break the awesome levels of film projectors everywhere. In this classic of the genre (which you absolutely need to see) Kelly, Williams, and Brown must thwart a neo-nazi, white supremacist plot of global black genocide. The method of this madness? A serum that, when introduced to the water table, would poison anyone of African descent. An absurd notion by today's standards; here it works to provide framework for an excellent action flick. If this basic thematic structure sounds familiar, it was parodied in 2009's Black Dynamite.
Perhaps the most unique flick to appear in his filmography is 1974's Golden Needles, an action adventure piece also staring Joe Don Baker and Burgess Meredith. The plot involves a stature which has seven golden needles embedded in it at specific points. Everyone's on the hunt for it because placing those needles into a man at exactly the same angles transforms him into a sexual superman (but incorrect placement results in an agonizing death). Clearly it's a comedy. We've got American International Pictures to thank for this special offering.
Kelly played mute Native American karate master Kashtok in 1975's Take a Hard Ride, which saw him once again teamed up with Williamson and Brown but this time in an Italian produced, blaxsploitation spaghetti western with Lee Van Cleef along for the ride. Shout! Factory released it as part of a double feature along with Rio Conshos in 2011. Included as part of the set are new interviews with both Jim Kelly and Fred Williamson which are must watch for fans of the era.
Sadly only one of Jim Kelly's movies is available for streaming on Netflix (One Down, Two to Go - again with Williamson, Brown, and Roundtree), but nearly all of them can be purchased through various releases. For the best smorgasbord sampler of his work, there's a cheaply had four pack entitled Four Film Favorites: Urban Action. It contains Three the Hard Way, Black Belt Jones, and Hot Potato (all Jim Kelly flicks), then throws in Black Sampson as a hell of an added bonus.
The world lost a classy, charismatic karate man this week, and the cult cinema landscape is noticeably diminished without this gentleman giant as a part of it. Celebrate a life well lived by watching one of his movies; maybe something that isn't typically in your wheelhouse. I remembered the man with a double feature of Enter the Dragon and One Down, Two to Go. What did you watch?
Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Wednesday's Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famous Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.
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