If I had a video store, there’d inevitably be a martial arts section. And that section would be next to the Blaxploitation section. And the shelf-transition between those two sections would feature a “Karate Blaxploitation” sub-genre shelf.
Sure, you’d find all the obvious films in there and you’d probably go looking for Black Belt Jones (shot by Kent Wakeford, who worked with Eric Roberts on Power 98; our debut review for “Radio Week” that ran March 15 to 21) or Black Samurai starring Jim Kelly of Enter the Dragon fame. You may even look for Kelly’s Three the Hard Way or Golden Needles.
But we aren’t throwin’ back to the video ‘80s. This Friday feature is all about the Drive-Ins of the ‘70s. And we need to go deeper than a Jim Kelly theme night for our Friday’s “Karate Blaxploitation” night at B&S About Movies. (Be sure to check out our “Radio Week” review of 1972’s Melinda, which features plenty of karate courtesy of Jim Kelly.)
The two of the films on the schedule star a smooth ass-kicker by the name of Warhawk Tanzania. And after his work in Force Four and Devil’s Express, he vanished into the eastern red sunset. What happened to the man who was born Warren Hawkins? No one knows; is he dead or alive? But the last word was that he was a businessman in residing in Brooklyn, New Work. What we do know is that Tanzania was a practitioner of the “Nisei Goju-Ryu” karate method, a martial art form developed by Hanshi Frank Ruiz, who served as the fight director on both of Tanzania’s films—and one more, as you’ll soon see.
And don’t forget: Junior’s always hungry, so stop by the snack bar.
Movie 1: Force Four (1975)
The tale is a simple one: A jive-cool New York crime lord’s prized African artifact—a mystical voodoo doll—is stolen. And he wants it back. So he hires an all-black squad of martial artists to retrieve it at all costs, because, well, “it can’t fall into the wrong hands.”
The awfulness of this kung-fu battle begins with acting by graduates of the Ed Wood Thespian Academy, and goes downhill from there . . . with inept fight chorography, out-of-sync dubbing, and sound effects more ludicrous than all of the “punches” and “blows” in all Asian Kung-fu flicks combined. Basically, all the things you want in a Drive-In Kung fu marathon. Is this just inept or a homage to the films from the Orient? You decide.
Also known as Black Force, this big screen debut of Tanzania also served as the second and final movie of director Michael Fink, who made his debut with Velvet Smooth. And in a twist only a B&S About Movies reader can appreciate: Fink went on to become an acclaimed visual effects supervisor, choreographing the fight scenes in Stallone’s Tango & Cash and Mel Gibson’s Golden Globe and Oscar-winning Braveheart.
You can watch Force Four for free on TubiTV.
Movie 2: Velvet Smooth (1976)
First, there was the black Kung fu fightin’ babes you know and love: Pam Grier (Jackie Brown) in Coffy, Foxy Brown, and Friday Foster, and Tamara Jones in Cleopatra Jones. But not too many remember Johnnie Hill in her one and only film as Velvet Smooth.
‘Ol Vel is a detective-for-hire contracted by another inner city crime lord, the arrogantly named King Lathrop, who wants to know who’s muscling-in on his turf. Of course, King double crosses Vel, so she brings on the whoop-ass. What did you think was going to happen?
This debut feature by Michael Fink is the second installment of the unofficial “Nisei Goju-Ryu” karate trilogy, since all three films utilize the martial arts form developed by Hanshi Frank Ruiz.
Movie 3: Devil’s Express (1976)
Warhawk Tanzania is back for the final film in the “Nisei Goju-Ryu” trilogy that made the VHS ‘80s rounds as Gang Wars. He’s Luke, a New York martial arts sensei who takes Rodan, his ne’er-do-well, drug-dealing student to China to complete his training. And while exploring an ancient cave, Rodan finds an amulet. And he takes it home. And the demon guardian of the amulet comes to New York retrieve the trinket. And only Tanzania can stop the . . . well, you thought the xenomorphs in the Alien knock-offs of the ’80s were inept. . . .
While director Barry Rosen finished his directing career with his second and final film, the bouncing teen-driven T&A flick The Yum Yum Girls (1976), he went onto produce the highly rated UHF-TV ‘90s syndicated series Highlander and Zorro. (We explore some of those T&A Drive-In flicks with our review of Crown International Pictures’ Van Nuys Blvd.)
You can watch Devil’s Express for free on You Tube.
Movie 4: The Black Dragon’s Revenge (1975)
Martial arts legend Ron van Clief received top billing in his fourth film, a tale about three rival karate street gangs (is there any other kind in New York) searching for a lost “finger fighting” manual written by the master himself: the late Bruce Lee. Does Ron sport a fro and sideburns that makes Jim Kelly jealous? You bet!
Unknown in the United States, outside of the most discriminating martial arts connoisseur, director Chun-Ku Lu is a respected, major star in China and the Pacific Rim territories with 80-odd credits as a writer, actor, and director. After retiring from the business in the late ‘90s, he’s back with a new film as a director: 2018’s This Life, I am a flower pot.
And Ron “The Black Dragon” van Clief is still going strong at the age of 77 and is currently filming Snow Black. His most recently released film was 2018’s retro-romp, Hot Lead Hot Fury (trailer; You Tube).
Do Sam and I need to write and direct a Kung fu blowout starring the 91-year old Leo Fong, who currently working on Pact of Vengenance, and Ron van Clief? If only we had the money and the connections . . . if only.
You can watch Black Dragon’s Revenge on You Tube.
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