Cleopatra Jones 5/10
Riding the fag-end of the Blaxploitation wave that kicked off several years earlier, Cleopatra Jones is a disarmingly silly cross between Shaft and Our Man Flint. The ‘twist’, such as it is, involves the secret agent hero being not only black but a woman – Cleopatra Jones, played by the statuesque Tamara Dobson. That’s about the extent of the film’s originality but the film isn’t as bad as you might expect.
Cleopatra is first seen at the helm of a rather unlikely Anglo-French-Soviet-Palestinian alliance to destroy the largest poppy fields in the world. This act infuriates their owner, Mommy (Winters) who decides to put a stop to Cleo’s activities once and for all. Using a crooked contact in the police force, Mommy arranges for the B and S House – a charitable anti-drugs centre – to be raided and subsequently closed down. Cleopatra doesn’t take this lying down and, in alliance with social worker tough guy Reuben Masters (Casey) and kung-fu experts the Johnson Brothers (Popwell and Kenyatta), she embarks on a quest to discover who the identity of the crooked cop and bring down Mommy’s reign in the city once and for all.
The plot is pretty standard crime movie fare and this is exacerbated by the look of the film which resembles a variety of other Warner Brothers films from the period – notably John Wayne’s underrated McQ and Magnum Force. This look is characterised by flat, evenly lit interiors and location shooting which emphasises blue sky and wide-open space – almost as if the open range of the Western is finding its urban equivalent. The morality of the film is pure Western as well of course – both sides are brutal but the bad guys are more sadistic and, in this case, considerably more camp than the good guys. Shelley Winters’ performance as Mommy is undoubtedly the most flamboyantly silly she ever gave and it’s considerably more fun seeing her going over the top than playing a Jewish earth mother as in The Poseidon Adventure. She’s also, incidentally, a lesbian which enables the script to go overdrive in making her as unattractive as possible – lesbianism, in the early seventies mainstream, was seen purely in terms of butch playacting or fey submission. The only defence for this kind of grotesquerie is that it enlivens the film – much as the quite shocking stereotyping of gay men in The Enforcer turned out to be ludicrously funny. When Winters gets cross, which is most of the time, she galumphs about the set in unlikely costumes and shouts things like “Do-gooders are ruining everything”, rather as though she were Norman Tebbit in a dress.
Speaking of costumes, it’s impossible to begin discussing Tamara Dobson without mentioning clothing. Cleopatra Jones is meant to be a tough secret agent – although given that her number plate reads “US Government: Cleo”, she hasn’t quite got the hang of the secret bit. However, she dresses as though she were about to parade down a 1973 catwalk in clothes which must have looked risible then and now seem positively antediluvian. Most of the time, Dobson is decked out in dead animals of one description or another, said items covering brashly coloured trouser suits with 36” flares. Her hats also deserve mention, not least for the way that they manage to stay on a head which has an afro the size of Birmingham. Indeed, Dobson is very beautiful woman who wears her mad threads with considerable style, but her acting is roughly on the level of a bit-player in a daytime soap. Nor does she convince as a kung-fu expert, although that’s partly because the cutting of the fight sequences is so clumsy that we rarely see her making a complete move.
The supporting cast do rather better than Dobson. Bernie Casey is a good, smart actor who keeps your interest going and he even manages to put across unfortunate lines like “No matter how many times I see a cat going through withdrawal, it’s always a heavy trip”. I assumed this was meant to be quite funny. As one of the few genuinely heroic social workers on film, Casey is required to do a lot of looking intense and concerned as if he was practising for a part in a Stanley Kramer film. As a supporting bad guy, revelling in the name of Doodlebug Simkins, Antonio Fargas is very entertaining especially in his attempts to be a British gentleman by employing an English chauffeur who says things like “You rang, squire ?” There are also a couple of amusing performances from the great Albert Popwell and Caro Kenyatta as the Johnson Brothers whose wisecracking martial arts stylings seem to spring fully formed from Jim Kelly in Enter The Dragon - the film which Cleopatra Jones supported on its British release.
This being late-period Blaxploitation, it’s no surprise to see it written and directed by white Americans, rather like the same year’s Shaft In Africa. This may well explain why all the black characters talk and behave like clichés deliberately designed to provide Spike Lee with something to complain about. However, I think it’s significant to distinguish between the early Black exploitation films - Cotton Comes To Harlem, Shaft - which really did open doors for black directors and later ones which simply existed to make money. Cleopatra Jones comes across as black action for a multi-racial audience, rather like the aforementioned Enter The Dragon always seemed like Asian martial arts packaged for the West. Nowhere is this compromise clearer than in the character of Crawford, Cleo’s middle-aged, white contact in the police force and unambiguously heroic. At the end, he is deliberately placed in the centre of an otherwise black line-up of the good guys and his slightly bemused face is the backing for the end credits. This is obviously a sop for white audiences in a film which otherwise paints white Americans as uniformally racist and corrupt. Some ten years after Martin Luther King’s march for freedom, the crusade for racial equality has been reduced to commercial fantasies of black superheroes and the assumption that ‘black is beautiful’. But you simply need to watch this out and out piece of fantasy to see why, fifteen years later, it was so essential for Do The Right Thing to be made. What's interesting, however, is the rage and disgust expressed against drugs and the way that pushers target children in schoolyards. The intensity of this is suggestive and unexpected and seems to point towards a more serious film than the one we actually get. Otherwise, it’s not a particularly bad film and Jack Starrett stages the action with some panache – a central car chase is exciting and well devised – but nor is it distinctive.
Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold 1/10
However, Cleopatra Jones looks like some kind of masterpiece when compared to its one and only sequel. Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold is such a miserably undistinguished film on every level that it can almost be counted as a negative achievement. If there were any plans to turn the series into a serious franchise, then this mess certainly killed them off.
The film is set in Hong Kong and concerns Cleopatra's tangles with the mysterious Dragon Lady (Stevens). This powerful drug runner has kidnapped the Johnson Brothers, who have been trying to run a sting on her operation. Cleopatra, accompanied by a mysterious Chinese agent named Mi Ling (Tanny) and her long-suffering boss Stanley (Fell), sets out to recover them and, as a side effect, put the Dragon Lady out of business.
It's symptomatic of the weaknesses of the film that it takes fifteen minutes for Chuck Bail and the writers to establish this inordinately simple plot line. The opening section is made needlessly confusing through characters not being properly introduced and photography so dark that you can barely make out what's happening. By the time Cleo has stepped out of her helicopter - once more dressed to kill - our attention has already drifted. It doesn't help that the Hong Kong setting makes the film look like one of the many cheap chop-socky efforts piled out after the success of Enter The Dragon but I presume that the Run Run Shaw connection explains the change in setting. Of course, by 1975, Blaxploitation was only being kept alive through artificial respiration and this is one of the last examples. Martial Arts, on the other hand, were on the up thanks to the revived interest in Bruce Lee after his death, and Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold is one of the odder examples of how producers desperately tried to cash in on the trend. The oddest, incidentally, is Hammer's co-production with Run Run Shaw, The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, which is a wonderful curio.
Tamara Dobson is the best thing about this film, giving a stylish and amusing performance as Cleopatra. She's rather more confident than in the first film and it's a shame that she didn't get the chance to reprise the character - although Beyonce Knowles' character Foxy Cleopatra in Austin Powers: Goldmember is a nice tribute. Special note should be made of her quite astonishingly horrible eye shadow which manages the difficult trick of upstaging her costume. Sadly, she's got no-one to play against here because Tanny is pleasant but amateurish and the character of Stanley gives the talented comic actor Norman Fell nothing to do except look annoyed. Albert Popwell and Caro Kenyatta are once again good fun but their screen time is limited. The most baffling aspect is the underplaying of Stella Stevens. A good, intelligent actress, Stevens is saddled here with a toned down version of the Mommy character from the first film and she makes the mistake of trying to play it naturalistically. She's so muted and unthreatening that her scenes slide into tedium and the attempts to establish her lesbianism are risible.
Chuck Bail is a fairly mediocre director who can't shoot a dialogue scene in a way which keeps your interest and whose angles during the action set pieces are almost guaranteed to make them ineffective. There are some good stunts here, especially in a very destructive car chase, but they go for very little. He has at his disposal some brilliantly tacky production design in the titular casino but he somehow manages to shoot it in such a flat way that it looks like a local branch of Gala Bingo. To make matters worse, Dominic Frontiere has provided a score which sounds like a parody of itself - he did much the same on the same year's Brannigan where such mockery was more appropriate. More amazingly, however, when the film is meant to be quite amusing as in the big action climax in the casino - during which a motorcycle is driven around and the whole place is shot to bits - the tone is all off and Bail seems to be treating it with deadly seriousness. I'm not exaggerating when I say that this is one of the least effective exploitation movies I've ever seen, and I've seen more than my fare share.
Not much to say about these Warner Brothers releases. If these really are cult films – and I’m not convinced of that given that they don't seem to have much of a following – then you’d have thought they would have received slightly better treatment. However, the total lack of extras on both discs is somewhat mitigated by pleasing transfers.
Both films are presented in an anamorphically enhanced Panavision ratio of 2.40:1. Having not seen the films in their full Scope ratios before, I was pleasantly surprised by how well they use the sides of the frame. The prints have some damage and suffer from frequent white speckling - this is more serious on Cleopatra Jones than the sequel. But the level of detail is high and the colours are satisfyingly rich. Not too much artefacting is visible, although this does become a slight problem in the occasional dark interior scenes. Overall, this is probably as good as the films have ever looked for home viewing. I think Casino Of Gold looks rather better than the original.
The soundtracks are the original mono tracks and are quite serviceable. The music tends to dominate, particularly in the action scenes, but dialogue is always clear and distinct.
There are no extras at all, not even the deliriously amusing theatrical trailers. Each film is divided into a generous 28 chapter stops and is subtitled in English and a range of other languages.
Cleopatra Jones comes near the end of the Blaxploitation period and is diverting without being memorable. It’s worth a look for some good action sequences and the unbelievable playing of Shelley Winters. Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold is much less interesting on every level and isn't worth your time. The DVDs are barebones but present the films fairly well.
Cleopatra Jones and Cleopatra Jones And The Casino of Gold are both available to buy on R2 DVD from Warners on the 2nd August.
Mike Sutton has reviewed the upcoming Warners R2 release of "Cleopatra Jones", an enjoyable but silly action movie from the later years of Blaxploitation. The DVD has no extras but presents the film reasonably well.