Thursday, February 4, 2010

URBAN ACTION COLLECTION

Unlike most of Warner Home Video's budget-priced "4 FILM FAVORITES" collections, which are generally repackagings of previously-released franchise films (BATMAN, LETHAL WEAPON, etc.) the new 2-disc URBAN ACTION COLLECTION is comprised of four films making their overdue digital video debuts. Long sought after by "Blaxploitation" fans, these titles - BLACK BELT JONES, HOT POTATO, BLACK SAMSON and THREE THE HARD WAY - are essential genre viewing.

Disc one contains the Jim Kelly (ENTER THE DRAGON) double feature of BLACK BELT JONES and HOT POTATO.

In JONES, Kelly takes on a bunch of stereotypical mobsters to avenge the death of his friend (Scatman Crothers as an unlikely kung fu teacher in a horrid toupee) and save his inner city martial arts school. Also starring Gloria Hendry (LIVE AND LET DIE), the film is competently directed by Robert Clouse (ENTER THE DRAGON) and is a fun, wholly predictable, action-packed flick.

The PG-rated HOT POTATO is a semi-sequel (Kelly's character is again called "Jones") where Kelly and a couple of other guys are sent into a fictional Asian country to rescue the kidnapped daughter of an American senator. Played strictly as a comedy spoof - the fight scenes are accompanied by cartoon sound effects - POTATO is remarkably unfunny. Not only did I not chuckle even once, I found myself sorely tempted to fast-forward to the action scenes.

Disc two contains BLACK SAMSON (the only one of the four films to not feature Kelly) and the "all-star" Blaxploitation epic, THREE THE HARD WAY.

SAMSON is a genre variation on WALKING TALL, with strip club proprietor Samson (Rockne Tarkington, ZEBRA FORCE) and his pet lion(!) fighting to keep drug dealers out of his neighborhood. Directed by former stuntman Chuck Bail, SAMSON is a very satisfying genre effort, that benefits greatly from having the great William Smith (THE LOSERS, RED DAWN) as a particularly nasty, racist heavy.

The final film in the set is the nigh-legendary THREE THE HARD WAY, which stars Jim Brown (SLAUGHTER), Fred Williamson (HAMMER, BLACK CAESAR) and Kelly as three friends who take on an army of white supremacists who have developed some sort of poison (biological or chemical? It's only described as "test tube stuff") that will kill only African-Americans, once it's introduced into the water supplies of Washington, Detroit and L.A.

Though flawed, THREE is a fun, entertaining movie with top-flight stuntwork by Hal Needham's Stunts Unlimited team, solid grindhouse filmmaking by director Gordon Parks Jr. (SUPER FLY), and plenty of macho charisma from its three leads. A particularly delightful exploitative highlight is the scene were Williamson calls in a team of specialists to "interrogate" a captured supremacist - a multiracial trio of motorcycle-riding dominatrixes who go about their "work" completely topless!

All four films are presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital mono sound. All of them look fantastic, with virtually flawless transfers from near-pristine source material (possibly the original negatives). There are no extra features of any kind included.

HOT POTATO is the weakest of the bunch (though the Thailand locations are pretty), but the other three are kick-ass Blaxploitation efforts from a time when action films actually had real people doing (sorta) real things in real places instead of everything being computer-generated cartoons. The plots are ludicrous and the acting is often laughable, but the action never stops. For fans of the genre, this low-priced set is a must-have.