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 film.
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: