Soul Cinema

Titles Reviewed:
Bucktown (1975) The Dynamite Brothers (1974) The Final Comedown (1972)

The Final Comedown

(USA, 1972) DIR-SCR: Oscar Williams. PROD: Oscar Williams, Roger Corman. CAST: Billy Dee Williams, D'Urville Martin, Celia Milius, R.G. Armstrong.


This low-budget gem is one of Roger Corman's rare attempts at tapping into the blaxploitation market, produced through the AFI and not his own New World Pictures. Director Oscar Williams would go on to make more conservative pictures like Five On The Black Hand Side (released by AIP), but this movie (later titled Blast, for reissue) is a marvel for its fragmented editing technique, scenes of overlapping dialogue adding to the frenetic nature, and a complex screenplay about race relations (based on Jimmy Garrett's play).

Billy Dee Williams is very good as Jimmy Johnson, a black militant who has a vendetta against the white race. Yet interestingly enough, he must rely on Caucasians to carry out his protest. The film takes place at "the end", in which a group of black militia is surrounded by police, after a botched coup. We soon learn that the reason for this bungled job is because a white radical failed in his promise to back up their actions. There are constant flashback sequences detailing Johnson's ousting from the white world, including a job interview where the position is suddenly no longer available once the boss sees that a black man is applying. We also see Johnson's gradual rise to social conscience, from planning revolutions in back rooms, to posters of Angela Davis in his bedroom, and the free breakfast campaign.

While the acting is sometimes rather forced (for instance, the role of Jimmy's mother, who is tired of his blaming the white race for everything; or in the otherwise exciting dinner scene with R.G. Armstrong as the white radical's father putting down the young generation), and the direction is somewhat pedestrian, The Final Comedown is commendable for not taking a facile approach to a complex social problem. With its elliptical timeframe, the past and present fold in on one another, and justly shows how things never change, even as these militants try to create a voice in a lily white world. Sequences of the radicals combating police are intercut with shots of newspaper ads with "equal opportunity employer" circled in red, and an African American woman serving dinner to white people. Perhaps the most telling scene is an early moment where Johnson berates a white hippie female (after sex!): "We never had anything to drop out of!"

The Dynamite Brothers

(USA, 1974) DIR: Al Adamson. PROD: Marvin Lagunoff, Jim Rein. SCR: John D’Amato. STY: Marvin Lagunoff, Jim Rein. EXEC-PROD: Sam Sherman. CAST: Timothy Brown, Alan Tang, Aldo Ray, Carol Speed, Don Oliver, James Hong.


Although Al Adamson will always be remembered (ie- vilified) for his earlier "cut and paste" horror films (not least the infamous Dracula Vs. Frankenstein), made with his producing partner Sam Sherman (with their incoherent plots and the casting of once-great Hollywood veterans), his films actually improved in later years. The Adamson-Sherman team would cash in on any popular trend of the day, such as the biker genre ( Satan's Sadists, Angels' Wild Women) or the Blaxploitation craze (Mean Mother and Black Heat). The best of their Blaxploitation films is The Dynamite Brothers, also one of Adamson's best films overall. While his legacy will forever have a reputation for the slapdash horror pictures, this gives evidence that he did have talent.

This is an enjoyable 1970s spin on The Defiant Ones, with the additional of some martial arts (cashing in on another 70s craze). Timothy Brown (soon to appear in Robert Altman's Nashville) is a black convict named Stud Brown (they couldn't come up with a less original name?) who gets handcuffed together with Chinese immigrant Larry Chin (charismatic martial arts star Alan Tang), by the corrupt cop Burke (played by Aldo Ray, when he was still in the Screen Actor's Guild). After a brazen escape, Stud helps Chin find his long-lost brother. It turns out that those responsible for his brother's disappearance are also foes of Stud's pal, Smiling Man (Don Oliver), who runs a drug syndicate, but mostly hangs out at some dimly lit bar with a lot of wood panelling. Smiling Man is fighting a turf war with the evil Tuen (familiar face James Hong), and Burke is in the middle of it all.

Of course, because this is the 1970s, anyone who stands in Larry Chin's way invariably knows kung fu. In short, The Dynamite Brothers is two genre pictures for the price of one, but offers little more than the conventions typical of either Blaxploitation or kung fu pictures. Even so, it is a lot of fun to watch. It helps too that these characters are written as more than just goofball caricatures. Larry's past is represented in blood-red tinted images which continue to haunt him. Stud's brief, doomed romance with a mute girl named Sarah (played by Carol Speed, of The Mack and, uh, Avenging Disco Godfather) is actually effective. Also, light years before every Hollywood action movie featured the tired gimmick of the corrupt cop, this movie has a couple of scenes with Burke, alone with his girlfriend, wondering how he got himself into this mess, and grimly realizing that he cannot escape it.

Despite conventions here and there, The Dynamite Brothers is nonetheless surprisingly ambitious. There is actually a not bad little twist which ties in all the red-tinted flashback scenes. All the secondary plots of drugs and gangs nicely come together as all parties duke it out at Tuen's mansion. Plus, it benefits from the charismatic performances of the two leads. Alan Tang is actually a pretty good actor as well as a karate star, and it's too bad that Timothy Brown's career never took off after Nashville (at least he also starred in another Adamson opus, Mean Mother). On the strength of this picture alone, it's time to give Al Adamson another look.

This film was originally released on Rhino VHS, and can now be seen on the exhaustive Severin Bluray set, Al Adamson: The Masterpiece Collection.

Bucktown

(USA, 1975) DIR: Arthur Marks. SCR: Bob Ellison. PROD: Bernard Schwartz. CAST: Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, Thalmus Rasulala, Tony King, Bernie Hamilton, Art Lund, Morgan Upton, Carl Weathers.


Writer-director-producer Arthur Marks clearly aspired to make more of his features than merely satisfying the requirements of exploitation films to sell tickets. Detroit 9000 and The Roommates give evidence that he had a great deal to say for himself within the confines of genre filmmaking. One therefore assumes that he saw the potential in Bob Ellison's script for Bucktown. The idea is completely wild: a black man returns to his hometown in the south, then calls in his pals to blow away all the corrupt white officials! Then they set up their own level of government which is also corrupt.

Still, it is a terrible movie. Its potential is sunk by the awful pacing and poor production. Only two years earlier, Pam Grier become the Queen of the Blaxploitation genre with her lead role in Coffy. Sadly, after that star-making effort, her subsequent efforts (including Friday Foster, also by Marks) quickly depleted in quality. Although second-billed here, it was a mistake to limit her to a weak "girlfriend" role. Sadly, Bucktown is evidence of how quickly the Blaxploitation genre was declining, even though the central idea is far less routine than the usual fare it offered at the time. Marks made a few other films in the genre (J.D.'s Revenge; Monkey Hu$tle) before quietly winding down his directorial career with episodic television. This was the sole feature credit for screenwriter Ellison, who otherwise kept busy on television, as a writer or creative consultant on such shows as Cheers, Dear John, Caroline In The City and Becker. Bucktown was available on MGM's "Soul Cinema" VHS series, and currently available as MOD DVD through MGM's Screen Archives.