Sunday, November 27, 2011

Ten Miles Of Bad Road

There has never been a film heroine quite like Cleopatra Jones. Standing six feet two inches in height, decked out in an exotic wardrobe and makeup more akin to a Parisian runway than a streetwise crimefighter, and embodied with confidence by sleek model Tamara Dobson, Cleopatra Jones was one of the most important female characters of the 1970s blaxploitation movement.

Brilliant, brave, and proudly black, Cleo zips around Los Angeles in a sweet customized Corvette Stingray that boldly advertises her job as a drug agent for the U.S. government. Her target is an L.A. queenpin named Mommy (Shelley Winters), who is way pissed about Cleo bombing her $30 million poppy field in Turkey. To get back at Cleo, Mommy engineers a series of ambushes that the agent deflects with her typically classy aplomb, as well as a police raid of a ghetto drug rehabilitation center run by Cleo’s man Reuben (Bernie Casey).

Jack Starrett (THE GRAVY TRAIN), an underrated director of action melodramas, handles the script’s more tender moments, such as a kissing scene told in dissolves, as skillfully as he stages the chases and shootouts. A car chase through the L.A. River is edited by Allan Jacobs (BLACULA) with some wit. The screenplay by actor Max Julian (THE MACK) and sitcom scribe Sheldon Keller is packed with comic-book flair that perfectly handled by Starrett and his flamboyant cast.

Winters chews not just the scenery but the soundstage catwalks too in an attempt to compete with Dobson’s shapely frame and outrageous clothes. Bedecked in a red wig and bellowing dialogue using her outdoor voice even indoors, Winters is a surprise as a dope-smuggling lesbian so soon after her Oscar-nominated turn in THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. Paul Koslo (who worked with Starrett in THE LOSERS), John Alderman, and Joe Tornatore play Mommy’s comic sidekicks.

A fun mixture of humor and action, CLEOPATRA JONES was a major hit, paving the way for CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD two years later. Also with the gorgeous Brenda Sykes, Antonio Fargas, Esther Rolle (GOOD TIMES), Dan Frazer (KOJAK), Bill McKinney (as a redneck, natch), Lee Weaver, Michael Warren (HILL STREET BLUES), Hedley Mattingly, SOUL TRAIN host Don Cornelius, and Albert Popwell and Caro Kenyatta, hilarious as karate-kicking brothers.

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