February 22, 2017

Blacksploitation Double Feature: Cleopatra Jones & Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold

Both these films are fun, campy takes on the James Bond-style crime film, and the sequel ramps up the production value considerably, but there are some serious flaws...

Cleopatra Jones' story unfolds something like this: United States Special Agent, Cleopatra Jones' sole assignment is to shut down drug-trafficking in the U.S. and abroad. She starts by burning down a poppy field in Turkey belonging to notorious drug-lord. Mommy, owner of said poppy fields, is in the US, and she is fuming. In an effort to lure Jones back to the US, Mommy uses a cop on her payroll to stage a raid and plant drugs at the B & S house (an organization that helps recovering addicts founded by Jones). Lucky for Mommy, it works! However she might have bitten off more than she can chew because Jones is resourceful, slick, ready to kick ass all over town, and Mommy just made it personal.

Our favorite parts: Every amazing Giorgio di Sant'Angelo outfit that Tamara Dobson sports. Watching Shelley Winters doing what she does best; be brash, loud and dominating. There's a sudden motorcycle race that's pretty entertaining. Some fantastic cars (’73 Corvette Stingray, gimmiegimmiegimmiegimmie) in a great car chase. The climactic end taking place in a massive junk yard that the filmmakers actually utilize. And of course, loads of fantastic action, thanks to director Jack Starrett.

The Vanity effect: As much as we love Vanity, we also recognize that she brings the production value down a notch when she's in a thing. And though Tamara Dobson is an amazing presences on screen (tall, gorgeous, fashionable), she's not the greatest actress. However, as it is with most things, this doesn't so much detract from our love of her, it just adds a strange layer to it.

Your fave is problematic: We truly love Cleopatra Jones and Mommy, but we wish the movie would have just let us enjoy them. In an early scene introducing Cleopatra Jones, the filmmakers spend about 3 mins letting two slack jawed gawkers eye hump her (while talking about her like she was a walking piece of meat) before moving on. It's not the only time it happens in the film, and all of it is completely unnecessary and tedious. Mommy, on the other hand, is not just the baddie, she's also a lesbian. That should be neither here nor there, but for the time period having the frumpy, loud, dominating and villainous lady also be a lesbian (who chases young, hot, women two thirds her age no less) was not incidental

Cast and Crew: Both of the films in this duo feature more Black actors than they do crew members, the notable exception in this case is that the screenplay was written by Max Julien. (However, before you start blaming Julien for the misogyny/homophobia in this flick, the other "screenplay by" credit for Cleopatra Jones goes to Sheldon Keller, who at that point was basically in Frank Sinatra's writing stable. Really the grossness could have come from either of them but, if I'm putting money on it, I'm all in for Keller.)

Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold's story unfolds something like this: Cleopatra Jones hasn't let up on her primary mission: shut down international drug traffic with impunity. She's teamed up with her two lackeys from the first film to infiltrate the biggest drug kingpin in Hong Kong, Dragon Lady. Unfortunately for the lackeys, they inadvertently walk into the middle of a hostel takeover by one of Dragon Lady's competitors, and are taken captive by her men. Cleo must get herself to Hong Kong before her lackeys turn to collateral damage, but finding just them is more than half the battle!

Sequel's gotta sequel: There are some things you can always count on in a sequel, and Casino of Gold delivers in the best ways possible! The two lackeys from the first film come back and get their screen time upped considerably, proving they're as fun as was hinted at in the first film. Jones is out of her element and has to team up with a local detective and who's just as fantastic as Jones, is just as ready to kick ass, and is proficient in martial arts. It makes a surprisingly pleasant team up. 

Our favorite parts: Again, every single Giorgio di Sant'Angelo outfit that Tamara Dobson effortlessly makes her own. The baddie (played by Stella Stevens) is less cartoony in this one and is a lot more bond-villain like, which is a welcome change. Dobson being teamed up with Ni Tien (who at that point had more than 40 films under her belt) thankfully balances out Dobson's inexperience in front of the camera. (Though to be fair to Dobson, she does a much better job acting in this film.) The production value jumped considerably in this one, partly due to Alan Hume being the DP. The grand finale is more fantastically bat-shit than the mall scene from Invasion U.S.A., and yet you don't hear about it nearly as often... wonder why? (Not really though, we totally know why.)

Cast and Crew: The crew is noticeably more diverse on this production. However, that's almost exclusively because it was co-produced by the Shaw Brothers. 

Yes, that Shaw Brothers: Only two times that we're aware of did the Shaw Brothers co-produce anything. Casino of Gold is one, and the other was the Hammer Films' co-production The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires

Your fave gets less problematic: It's disappointing that the SB didn't do more Cleopatra Jones films, because they're pretty great when it comes to their female characters. Their hand in this production makes the sequel the more watchable of the two films. The women in Casino of Gold team up together in a very Tango & Cash way. Each woman has a special skill they bring to the table, and each is allowed to let that talent shine before they finally bring those skills together in the big finale. It's a far cry from the out and out lechery from the first film, and that made us terribly happy!

There's even a Bond-type set! It's hard to see, but that's a swords fight taking place inside a ring of swords. Priceless!
Clearly we have a favorite: We do recommend both of these films, but watch the first installment with a grain of salt, and just straight up enjoy the second. 

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