Whereas most blaxploitation flicks take place in the dingy milieu of dealers, junkies, pimps, and streetwalkers—making exposed flesh, outrageous fashions, and tough slang important elements of their sleazy appeal—Trouble Man belongs to a more restrained crime-picture tradition. Excepting the color of the lead character’s skin, the presence of a soul-music score, and the use of terms like “honky” and “motherfucker,” Trouble Man is basically an old-fashioned potboiler in the Bogart tradition. The lead character, Mr. T. (Robert Hooks), is a take-no-guff private eye who gets framed for murder by ambitious gangsters, so he calls upon his ample resources of a clever mind, a fast gun hand, and plentiful contacts within the police force and the underworld to extricate himself from a sticky situation. Along the way, he clashes with a mixed-race pair of hoodlums (played by an overacting Ralph Waite and a hard-working but underused Paul Winfield), and he enjoys a few moderately interesting arguments with policeman Joe Marx (William Smithers). Mr. T also shares a few pointless scenes with his girlfriend, Cleo (Paula Kelly), and he hangs out in his groovy lair—a back office in a pool hall. Presenting an African-American environment free from blaxploitation’s usual clichés makes Trouble Man mildly refreshing, but the movie’s storyline is disappointing. The deadly first hour comprises lots of convoluted exposition, so, ironically, the sensationalistic extremes found in other blaxploitation flicks are missed. Things pick up a bit in the end, but not quite enough. This is a shame, not only because the picture avoids reducing African-Americans to cartoonish stereotypes, but also because director Ivan Dixon employs solid camerawork and lighting, giving the piece a polished look. Plus, Hooks is a formidable leading man who seems as if he could’ve done something with better material. Yet even the silky score, by Motown legend Marvin Gaye, lacks sufficient energy; only the main theme has a lingering groove.
Trouble Man: FUNKY