Tamara Dobson, Shelley Winters, Bernie Casey
CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD
Tamara Dobson, Stella Stevens, Ni Tien, Norman Fell
Region 2 Editions reviewed by Mark Frost
Cleopatra Jones is a US special agent
employed by the government to take on the mighty drug trafficking gangs
who ply their wares on the streets of America. After Jones destroys a
major Opium source, the head of a drug gang targets the government agent,
her friends and associates.
Cleopatra Jones must battle against rival
gangs and her own crooked police force in order to strike a blow against
the world’s evil drug industry.
This sounds like the ingredients for a good
blaxploitation film. In this case, too good.
As had previously be done with martial arts
in Enter The Dragon, Warner Brothers seized upon a minor genre that
was beginning to breakout and threw stacks of cash and technical know-how
For martial arts, this approach was just
what the genre needed to kick-start it in new directions, for
blaxploitation – it was everything the genre stood against, and the
beginning of the end.
The primary reason Cleopatra Jones
does not work is the fact that that it ignores the main theme running
through all earlier blaxploitation films – to give the black audience a
chance to see a black hero stick it to the (white) man. The entire story
of films such as Black Caesar and Superfly revolved around
the protagonist getting rich off the white man in any way he could. The
fact that this was often through crime only made the hero more fallible
and human to the audience.
Where Cleopatra Jones goes wrong is
to have the hero work for ‘the man’, here as a special agent for the
government. That’s not to say there were not honest heroes in other films
of the genre – John Shaft (Shaft, 1971) was a law abiding policeman
and Coffy (Coffy, 1973) was a nurse – but they certainly never let
their employers get the better of them, or lose sight of the disadvantages
that society dealt them.
But Cleopatra Jones happily takes orders
from her white superiors, with Warners even having the cheek to infer that
it’s the government that deserves the credit for saving the day.
It could be said that a story like this can
not successfully be told by a white director, as it is here by Jack
Starrett. To a certain extent I think this is true, but it cannot be
ignored that one of the undeniable classics of the genre, Black Caesar,
was directed by white exploitation supremo Larry Cohen.
Another factor which sets Cleopatra Jones
apart from other more ‘authentic’ blaxploitation films is the style. The
influence of the big budget shows up in well framed, often technically
ambitious shots – always well lit, always without faults. One of the
defining features of blaxploitation, if not exploitation in general, is
the rough, often experimental camera work. To me, the gritty handheld
shooting and technical deficiencies of frenetic, visceral classics like
Hell Up In Harlem and Cool Breeze, is exactly what the movement
was all about – freedom to break the rules and do it another way.
To see all of the widely accepted
iconography of the genre on display, but presented in this professional
and sterile manner, gives, at best, a lack of authenticity and, at worst,
the feeling you are watching a spoof.
The film is not entirely without merit
though. The supporting cast is a sea of familiar faces from 1970’s cinema:
Bill McKinney, hard-faced bad guy from countless movies including The
Outlaw Josey Wales and The Parallax View; Paul Koslo –
effective bit player who was superb in The Omega Man and many
Charles Bronson films including Mr Majestyk; Albert Popwell, who
managed to appear in the first four Dirty Harry movies as different
characters without anybody noticing; and Antonio Fargus – infamous as
Huggy Bear in Starsky and Hutch, but an important figure in the
genesis of blaxploitation, having appeared in such stand-outs as Shaft
and Foxy Brown.
The headlining cast doesn’t fare as well.
Tamara Dobson – an ex model – has little screen presence other than what
is given to her by her extravagant outfits, leaving us wishing that
someone of the caliber of blaxploitation queen Pam Grier had been cast
Getting Shelly Winters as the adversary
must have seemed like quite a coup at the time, as she was still hot off
the back of The Poseidon Adventure. Unfortunately, Winters uses
this opportunity to deliver one of the worst performances I have ever
witnessed. What was probably intended as a riotous tour de force instead
turns out to be a noisy, irritating form of self-parody. Drawing on the
performance she should have outgrown in Bloody Mama, Winters
obviously believes she is appearing in something that is beneath her, so
subsequently lets rip. A year later Nichelle Nichols, of Star Trek
fame, showed Winters how it should be done in the underrated Truck
The third lead, Bernie Casey, fares
slightly better in the role of a drugs halfway house proprietor. He is
required to act a lot of serious lines for such a lightweight movie, which
he tries to instill with a bit too much dignity as if he were acting in a
better film. That said, along with Fargus, Bernie Casey is the only actor
to have actually earned his blaxploitation stripes in the likes of the
splendid Get Carter remake Hit Man – and Cleopatra Jones
benefits from his presence.
The casual viewer will still find plenty to
engage – motorbikes, kung fu fights, shootouts, car chases – but it all
just feels like boxes ticked to me.
This is blaxploitation as rich, white
executives see it, and as such, should appear very low down your list.
CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD
Cleopatra Jones and The Casino of Gold
is, amazingly enough, actually a better film than the first. The
flimsy story centres on the kidnapping of the Johnson Brothers (Albert
Popwell and Caro
Kenyatta returning from the first), by a ruthless Chinese drug gang.
Cleopatra Jones is sent in to secure their
release and bring the drug gang to its knees.
This film seems more comfortable with
itself than the preceding entry. There are no flamboyant characters,
scenes or situations that spring from the need to remind us we are
watching blaxploitation. Tamara Dobson gives a much-improved performance –
more composed and confident, reminiscent of Faye Dunaway in The Thomas
Crown Affair – and the lead villain (played by Shelly Winters’ co-star
in The Poseidon Adventure, Stella Stevens) is far more effective
and surprisingly mean and masochistic.
As a stand-alone film it is instantly
forgettable, a mish-mash of fights, car chases and other 70’s staples,
with a poor narrative pace resulting in a very saggy middle. But viewed
back to back with the original it shows itself to be a very watchable
action piece, comparable to most similar films of the period.
Even though the move to set the film in
Hong Kong was probably cynical (Sir Run Run Shaw was producer), it adds to
the appeal in terms of interesting locations and cultures on show – many
unfamiliar in an American film. The latter half of the picture, which
takes place in Macau, is a feast for the eyes - backed up by the
impressive set design replicating the seedy gambling dens and glitzy
casinos with equal success.
The main reason to recommend this film is
for the action set pieces – the motorbike scenes in particular. The
production would seem to have used the local stuntmen rather than
Westerners, as the stunts are superb. Certain shots reminded me of the
early 80’s Asian work of Jackie Chan, where personal safety is never the
most important factor. The final set piece in the Casino of Gold is an
exhilarating display of stunt-work that really makes you sit up and take
With its handheld camerawork and furious
inter-cutting – it more than makes up for the general malaise of what
Both films are presented in anamorphic
2:40-1 with generally pleasing pictures. Cleopatra Jones’ average
bitrate is 5.94 Mb/s, and Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold is
5.74 Mb/s, each on a single layer disc. Typical of Warner releases of this
period, the image is sharp with good detail and contrast. My only main
quibble is that the first film can be a little too dark at times. There
are plenty of flecks dancing across the screen throughout, but that is as
bad as it gets. Another solid title from Warner, who never seem to get
enough credit for their DVD releases.
The soundtracks are Dolby Digital mono (at
192kbps), as the films would have originally been presented. Yet again, no
complaints as the track is very clear, with plenty of bass when needed.
And here is where Warners get their usual
telling off – no extras whatsoever. Are you telling me that Tamara Dobson,
who hasn’t made a film since 1984, wouldn’t do a commentary for twenty
If you are looking for the definitive
blaxploitation experience, then keep looking.
The Cleopatra Jones films are the Hollywood
version of blaxploitation, and thus are not really worth your time,
rather best saved for stumbling back in from the pub with a couple of
mates in tow in the mood for a giggle.
It seems a shame that Warners couldn’t do
the decent thing and put them as a double disc set for the regular price,
ala Fox’s Our Man Flint and In Like Flint pairing, which
would have resulted in a more favourable review. But if you’re a
blaxploitation completist, then there is still plenty to enjoy in these