Tuesday, March 26, 2013

"6 Feet 2' And All of it Dynamite!"

Though mainstream Hollywood had had its fair share of leading ladies in dramatic roles, for everything else, and for minorities, I always felt that genre cinema was one of the few places where new ground in portrayals of all kinds could first be broken. Looking back over time, of the few stand-out ladies of whoop-ass action, blaxploitation produced two of the most iconic in the form of one Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson.

Tamara Dobson had worked as a fashion model and commercial actress before being launched onto the silver screen versus an exceptionally crazy Shelley Winters in the original Cleopatra Jones (1973). Cleo, a sort of drug enforcement version of James Bond, returns to Los Angeles from ridding the world of the drug trade to zip around town in a tricked-out Corvette in order to stop local drug kingpin, Mommy, who's had the cops leaning on her boyfriend's community drug rehabilitation center to get revenge on Cleo.

Created by legendary entertainer Max Julien, Cleopatra Jones' greatest fault is that she's...well...a little too indestructible. Even Bond occasionally got hurt or captured, but never once does Cleo seem like she may not quite get out of the scrape. So most of what little emotional resonance there is in the picture falls to perpetual movie pimp/dealer/fall guy Antonio Fargas as the gangster Doodlebug. Fargas stands out as the second most memorable character in the film and delivers a monologue about his hair that was almost worth the run time of the movie. The most memorable is far and away Shelley Winters at her scenery-chewing best as the red-haired, leather clad, evil lesbian villainess, Mommy. She hams it up  to her evil best, but almost seems like a good replacement for Frankie and Annette's nemesis, Eric Von Zipper in the 60's Beach movies. In all, it's a very fun flick with plenty of action and excitement, a little intrigue, some creative movie deaths, and about as kooky as you can get in 60's fashion...until you get to...

Cleo's second outing, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1975). This time the creative team moved the production to Hong Kong and partnered with martial arts movie legend Run Run Shaw of the Shaw Brothers. This time, Cleo's cohorts, the Johnson brothers, are captured while trying to bust a heroin ring, and Cleo arrives to join forces with a local Chinese detective team to complete the bust on the "Dragon Lady" Bianca Javin (Stella Stevens).

The sets are bigger and more lavish. The action is way more over-the-top. The outfits for Cleo are more colorful and outrageous. But is it a better movie than the original? In a way, yes. I was generally more entertained, much in the way most martial arts movies' acrobatics and choreography can carry even the thinnest storylines. However, Cleo comes off just as indestructible as ever, and most of her dialogue is a series of stilted one-liners. Dobson, who was every bit a statuesque and beautiful lady, lacks the smoldering sexiness and vulnerability that made the aforementioned Pam Grier so great. In some respects, especially in this sequel, she's almost more of an animated part of the set than the leading lady of the movie. Also, this one trades one evil lesbian villainess for another, and while Stella Stevens is adequately menacing as Bianca, she's nowhere near as indelible as Winters' Mommy.  Nevertheless, Cleopatra Jones is definitely an icon of the blaxploitation era, and I genuinely had a good time watching both films.

On a trivial side note, I had a good chuckle that each film featured a staple of my youthful television watching. The first film had Esther Rolle, who I grew up watching as Florida Evans in Good Times, and the second featured Norman Fell, who I first new as Mr. Roper on Three's Company.