Monday, November 28, 2011

Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold

Warner Brothers’ sequel to the smash CLEOPATRA JONES took advantage of its heroine’s status as a special government agent and sent Cleo globetrotting to the Far East. William Tennant, who produced the first movie, also scripted this tongue-in-cheek adventure that pits its six-foot-two antagonist against the deadly Dragon Lady (a game Stella Stevens), a master swordfighter who operates a gaudy casino in Macao. Chuck Bail, who did stunt work on CLEOPATRA JONES, was promoted to direct the sequel after helming Warners’ blaxploitation hit BLACK SAMSON.

To take advantage of the then-hot martial arts craze, Warners and Tennant brought in Run Run Shaw to co-finance and co-produce the picture, making CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD an unusual and highly entertaining mixture of kung fu, blaxploitation, and James Bond-style espionage. Tamara Dobson’s wardrobe and exotic makeup as Cleopatra Jones are even more outrageous, keeping in the tradition of sequels being bigger and more expensive, and director Bail’s experience controlling wild stunts is well suited for the film’s eye-catching mayhem.

Tennant wisely brought back the crowdpleasing Johnson brothers, played by Caro Kenyatta and Albert Popwell, and made them government agents investigating the heroin trade in Hong Kong. While undercover making a score with a Chinese dealer named Chen, the brothers are kidnapped by the Dragon Lady and taken back to her plush casino to enjoy themselves with her concubines until she can confirm their identities.

Arriving in Hong Kong to find her friends, Cleo demonstrates a disdain for authority by refusing to pay any attention to her contact Stanley (Norman Fell) and his penchant for writing reports and going by the book. While looking for Chen, Cleo hooks up with Mi Ling (Ni Tien, billed as Tanny in her first English-language production), a cheerful Chinese agent who helps her fight her way through the Hong Kong underground.

The problem with a bigger sequel is that Dobson tends to get lost within it. Probably due to the Shaw Brothers’ participation, Ni and the Chinese actors playing the rest of Mi Ling’s squad handle as much of the fighting as Dobson does. CASINO OF GOLD is a less personal adventure than Cleo’s drug-busting in the Los Angeles ghetto, as seen in CLEOPATRA JONES.

Yet, the sequel is still highly entertaining, packed with action and comic-book luridness, typified by the Dragon Lady’s sword-surrounded arena deathtrap. It sure is fun to watch the actors and lots of Chinese stuntmen busting up Johnson Tsao’s ornate casino set in the finale. Dominic Frontiere (FREEBIE AND THE BEAN) composed a score reminiscent of Lalo Schifrin’s work on ENTER THE DRAGON.

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