Friday, January 24, 2014

Black Fist (1974)

          The grim sport of illegal streetfighting hasn’t been the subject of many movies, even though the image of desperate tough guys pummeling each other for the benefit of underworld types is inherently cinematic. And if Walter Hill’s directorial debut, Hard Times (1975), is perhaps the best big-screen exploration of the subject, then Black Fist represents a place much lower on the quality scale. Ostensibly a blaxploitation picture but really just an inner-city drama with a protagonist who happens to be African-American, Black Fist has problems common to low-budget exploitation movies—dodgy acting, erratic storytelling, excessive violence—but it’s watchable nonetheless. The basic plight of the hero, a guy who pays a terrible price for latching onto what seems his only option for success, is deeply relatable (“All I ever wanted in life was not to have to kiss whitey’s ass!”), and the filmmakers slam viewers with plentiful lurid images and scenarios. So, while the narrative momentum of Black Fist is quite weak, owing to predictability and thin characterizations, one can do worse in the realm of violent grindhouse fare targeted at black audiences.
          Richard Lawson, a handsome and muscular actor who never escaped supporting roles and/or leading parts in B-movies, stars as Leroy Fisk, a young man struggling to get by. He comes to the attention of a gaggle of gangsters led by Ingo (Charles L. Hamilton) and Logan (Robert Burr), who offer to sponsor him as a prizefighter. Although Larry does well in early bouts, he realizes he’s obligated to share his winnings not only with the mobsters but also with corrupt cop Heineken (Dabney Coleman). Angry that he’s being unfairly exploited, Larry rebels, which causes his enemies to take deadly retribution on Larry’s loved ones. Then Larry goes into hiding and systematically seeks revenge against his tormentors.
          This is turgid stuff, with an episodic structure and a mean-spirited tone keeping the pace slow. Furthermore, Lawson and some of his costars, especially future Miami Vice star Philip Michael Thomas, frequently succumb to silly overacting. Yet the basic meat of the story is solid, and the presence of Coleman—who subsequently became one of the great supporting actors of the ’80s—elevates the movie considerably. With his naturalistic ad-libs and wicked laughs, Coleman oozes believable, everyday villainy. That said, the makers of Black Fist leave good taste far behind on many occasions, especially during a Death Wish-style third act that features several cartoonish killings. Therefore, this picture is neither for discriminating viewers nor for the faint of heart—but if grimy street violence is your thing, Black Fist might suit you nicely.

Black Fist: FUNKY

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