Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Cleopatra Jones (1973) & Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1975)

          One of those bad movies that sounds fabulous in the abstract but disintegrates upon close inspection, Cleopatra Jones stars statuesque ex-model Tamara Dobson as an ass-kicking secret agent, sort of a soul-sister James Bond, but the cult-fave blaxploitation flick can’t surmount the fact that Dobson’s one of the worst actors ever to step in front of a camera. Her line readings are excruciating, and she’s so robotic that she drains the life out of every scene in which she appears—which is a problem, since she’s in nearly every scene. Dobson cuts an impressive figure, of course, with her attractive look and towering stature, so it’s easy to see the sort of comic-book entertainment the filmmakers were trying to create: an escapist fantasy about a glamorous urban superhero taking a break from her jet-set lifestyle to help out her hometown peeps. Had the title role been cast more effectively, Cleopatra Jones could have lived up to its memorable title. Still, the always-entertaining Bernie Casey makes the picture somewhat watchable thanks to his charismatic performance as Cleo’s community-activist boyfriend; this is one of those with-it ’70s pictures in which the aloof protagonist is constantly criticized for not supporting street-level social change, so we’re supposed to be thrilled when Cleo’s consciousness expands. The plot about foreign smack infesting the ghetto moves along quickly enough, and there’s lots of violence, but the shortcomings of the woman playing Cleopatra Jones are pretty fatal for a movie called Cleopatra Jones. So while the standard-issue blaxploitation flava is present and accounted for (ginormous Afros, pimptastic clothes, wakka-wakka tunes) the only really memorable element of the picture is a demented performance by villainess Shelley Winters, working a weird psycho-lesbian groove as Cleo’s smack-dealing nemesis, “Mommy.”
          The original movie did well enough to spawn a sequel, the even more fabulously titled Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold, with Stella Stevens taking over the villainess role as someone called Bianca Javin, a.k.a. the Dragon Lady. While still quite awful, the sequel is a slight improvement over its predecessor, because Dobson is both less central to the plot and a bit more comfortable onscreen; the addition of goofy elements like extended kung-fu fights and a campy supporting turn by future Three’s Company guy Normal Fell increase watchability as well. Neither of these movies is essential, so unless you’re a Dobson fan or a blaxploitation completist, viewing the second movie is probably the best way to satiate whatever Cleopatra Jones curiosity you might have. (Casino of Gold: Available at WarnerArchive.com)

Cleopatra Jones: LAME
Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold: FUNKY

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