In the same year that Jim Kelly shared the screen with Bruce Lee in Hollywood’s first blockbuster martial arts film, Enter the Dragon, the blaxploitation genre hit its peek with dozens of independent movies and a few major releases. It was also the year that martial arts, another movie element quickly embraced by inner city audiences, became a key component to blaxploitation films. Along with Enter the Dragon, there was Dynamite Brothers that featured Timothy Brown teaming up with versatile Hong Kong star Alan Tang to kick drug-dealing butt.
Apart from MGM who backed the release of Shaft (1971), Warner Brothers was the leading studio to take advantage of the blaxploitation craze and proved that money made the difference with the release of the genre’s seminal film Superfly (1972). Their next project was to exploit all the latest trends by merging girl power with black power and setting it to the tune of an urban actioner with a superspy versus both ‘da man’ and the pusher man. And unlike the independents, they were determined not to alienate white audiences.
The film is Cleopatra Jones and its one of the most polished blaxploitation films released in the ’70s. It stars the gorgeous former model Tamera Dobson in the role of the ultimate urban action heroine; strong, proud, respected and expert in the use of firearms, driving, and of course martial arts. She busts out in the obligatory gun fights, car chases, and karate action. With less bite than most of its grittier peers, Cleopatra Jones is essentially a live-action comic book that relies on hammy acting, the look of its flawless heroine, and a dose of humor to keep the affair fun and engaging, if not original or impressive in the martial arts department.
The film begins ambitiously with Agent Jones arriving in a Middle Eastern country to oversee the bombing of a massive field of poppies. This draws the ire of its owner, a crass drug runner in the US named Mommy (played to excess by Shirley Winters). Mommy brings Jones back to her home turf by paying crooked cops to plants drugs at a halfway house for drug addicts set up by Jones and her lover. With the backing of a sympathetic white police chief and the aid of two wise-cracking karate pals, Jones proceeds to uncover the bad cops and take on Mommy and her thugs. Complicating the situation is one of Mommy’s underlings named Doodlebug (Antonio Fargas, AKA ‘Huggy Bear’ from Starsky and Hutch). He decides to break out on his own, which turns out to be a really bad idea.
This is not a great film, except by blaxploitation standards. But it’s still a lot of fun if not taken seriously. Its not hard to kick back in amusement as Shirley Winters slaps around her cronies or Antonio Fargas trades insults with his dopey partners. The costumes, especially Tamara’s are so… ’70s and wild. As an exaggerated superspy with her own “Special Agent” badge, she gets some pretty nice perks including a fire-breaking Corvette with automatic firearms hidden in the doors and police backing to shakedown pushers or take down thugs with her vigilante friends at a whim. Sadly, her screen fighting skills fail to impress. Then again, watching in slow motion as she drops a high-heeled boot down on a thug while screaming is definitely entertaining. The film seems to allude to great fighting ability without really knowing how to portray it. What little is seen is given technical assistance by Hapkido master Bong Soo-han. This is the man pretty much responsible for introducing “real” martial arts to Hollywood with his work on Billy Jack, consulting and doubling actor Tom Laughlin. He’s probably best known for his role in Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) parodying Sek Kin’s Mr. Han from Enter the Dragon. Unfortunately, most of his effort has been wasted on B-movies and stars with no real screen fighting ability. In Cleopatra Jones, Tamara may be attractive but she’s weak on fighting and no one on the production appears to have been savvy enough to cover it up with fancy editing. It doesn’t help that she has no one of interest to fight. Her final opponent is actually Shirley Winters which is downright bizarre!
In short, Cleopatra Jones is not a film to see any good female martial arts action. Over in Hong Kong, Angela Mao and Polly Shang Kuan were the best female martial arts stars to watch in 1973 and poor Tamara is nothing but a paper tiger in comparison. Even fellow blaxploitation leading lady Pam Grier had more grit and substance when it came to action acting. She’s no great actress either. Yet Tamara is still equal to most of Hollywood’s action starlets as of 2004 and her film has aged reasonable well thanks to its less militant racial attitude and slick production values.