Three the Hard Wayrecommended viewing

Giving over-the-top a good name
★★★★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1974
Director: 
Gordon Parks, Jr.
Starring: 
Jim Kelly, Jim Brown, Fred Williamson
The Setup: 
Evil doctor has invented serum to kill all blacks. Three men unite to bring him down.
Discussion: 

This came from the same four-movie pack that also includes Black Samson and Black Belt Jones. I looked up all the moves contained therein on IMDb and was surprised to find this one rated off the charts, many people saying it's not just a great blaxploitation film, but among the best action movies of any kind they had ever seen. Well, THAT movie is Trouble Man, but this one, while not necessarily up there on the quality level, succeeds by hitting the sweet spot where awesomeness crossbreeds with absolute ludicrousness. Which is exactly where I want to be.

We have a somewhat artsy opening in a prison that combines occasional freeze frames with a synchronized score, making you think we might have a bit more artsiness throughout than we actually do. It also implies that Gordon Parks, Jr. had recently seen Peckinpah's The Getaway. This prisoner steals a crowbar and gets out, moving over to a room containing several corpses of black people. A guard comes in, checks out the corpses and BLAM! Crowbar right to the face! It just comes out of nowhere and is shockingly brutal, symbol of the nasty little surprises to come that make this movie something special. The prisoner is shot, but escapes, forcing this young white couple, at gunpoint, to drive him out of there, and--credits!

We find out that this movie is going to feature a sort of blaxploitation supercast, with Jim Brown of numerous famous titles, Jim Kelly of Enter the Dragon and Black Belt Jones, and Fred Williamson of another bunch of classic and not-so-classic films. It is directed by Gordon Parks, Jr., famed for Super Fly, and features a soundtrack by The Impressions. They offer the title song, a ballad called "Wendy," as we have a montage of Jim Brown as Jimmy Lait [you know Lait is French for milk, right?] enjoying a romantic day with the woman of the title. They have the kind of romantic day only found in blaxploitation movies, in which they do nothing but walk in parks, gaze into each other's eyes, drive in their white Rolls Royce, and kiss throughout. They are just parking when they are approached by the white hippies, saying they have Jimmy's friend in the car. Jimmy sees him bleeding profusely inside, and hilarious tells him to "just take it easy." Jimmy commandeers the hippies' car without so much as a "please" or "thank you," despite the hippie guy saying "Hey, we drove all night [to bring him here]!" Well, let your overprivileged caucasian life be your thanks, honky!

In the hospital, the escapee babbles about the compound where he escaped from, saying "they're gonna kill us!" and not making much sense, despite Jimmy repeatedly asking him for an overall topic statement elucidating the situation from a top-down level. Jimmy is called to the recording studio, but Wendy offers to stay and guard the escapee, since she is a right-on supportive woman. Unbeknownst to them, however, the bad guys are pulling up with a tree-trimming crane and coming in through the escapee's window! They kill him, then kidnap Wendy!

So Jimmy is at the recording studio with The Impressions, where we hear most of a complete song before Jimmy tells the group that they're just not bringing the passion. It is soon decided that Jimmy is being too hard on them because he is tense. On his way home Jimmy is attacked by two guys in cars at his local parking garage. He leads them to the top level and, through some deft maneuver that we don't see, induces both cars to drive off the edge. This is especially amazing in light of the fact that the second car, last time we saw it, was motoring steadily in the opposite direction. But you won't care, because you'll be overcome by the awesomeness of the two-car slo-mo fall, complete with mid-air explosion! WE then shift to the lair of the bad guy, Monroe Feather, who is telling Wendy of his plan for "racial cleansing," i.e. he's going to kill all blacks, to which she responds "Man, you are WAY out of date!" which gave me a huge laugh. Yes, the main problem with genocide is that it's not currently in vogue! Like polyester, man! Feather's big-haired assistant [above] offers to show Wendy a thing or two about who's in charge. By the way, somewhere in here we have a quick discussion of how their serum acts "like sickle-cell anemia" and that is the only scientific explanation for how this thing will single out blacks alone. But if you're watching this for the science, man you are way out of date!

So Jimmy goes to see Fred Williamson as Jack, who lives in Chicago. Jack doesn't ask questions, just grabs his gun and is ready to help. That's sweet. Now follows a lot of nice real location stuff in the Chicago of the 70s, quickly leading into this fairly awesome daytime arcade shootout.

Now our scene shifts to New York, where Jim Kelly as Mister Keyes [his first name is "Mister"] is facing police harassment. Some old codger cop is asking to see his license and registration for no reason, until he crosses the last line of Mister's patience, and the kung-fu is unleashed. Suddenly a giga-mass of cops appears, and we have a spontaneous multi-cop kung-fu showdown in the middle of the street, complete with numerous icon-making slo-mo shots as Kelly shouts his kung-fu grunts and screams! And you know what? It is all QUITE cool. Then, once it's over, Jimmy and Jack just walk up to Mister AS THOUGH NOTHING HAPPENED. Yep, gigantic kung-fu showdowns in the middle of a busy New York street are just SUCH an everyday occurrence they don't even merit comment! You see why you HAVE to love this movie!

So we SUDDENLY cut to these motorcycles riding in Manhattan, one all in red, one white, one blue. And of course you are left to assume that our three heroes went out and attired themselves in the colors of the American flag and bought matching motorcycles, the better to intimidate their deadly foes, but NO! Turns out these people come to SEE our heroic trio, and they reveal themselves to be LOVELY LADIES! But don't get too close, gentlemen, for they comprise your typical band of motorcycle-riding dominatrix torture vixens. Yeah. These are Countess, Empress and Princess, and they are sent upstairs to torture this guy our heroes have captured in order to get some information out of him. At first the prisoner is like "Alllriiiight!" but soon we see the women emerge, topless and sweaty, and when the guys go back in the prisoner is doubled up on the floor, wailing. We never find out what the women did, which makes the whole thing pretty hilarious.

But that was intentionally hilarious. Now something unintentionally hilarious. Jimmy goes in and interrogates the guy, who tells him quite clearly that this guy has a secret compound where he is developing a serum that will kill all blacks, and only blacks, and that he is going to introduce it into the water supplies of Washington, DC, L.A. and Detroit. However, when Jimmy reports back to the others, he says that the prisoner didn't say much of anything, except "something about Washington, L.A. and Detroit." So they decide that they will each go to one of the affected cities, saying "Three the hard way. Three cities, three of us."

SPOILERS > > >
So Jimmy gets a call that tells him if he wants to hear from Wendy, he should wait for a call at this remote roadside phone booth. He does, and is waiting for her on the phone when--gee, that truck is getting awful close! The comes comes up and smashes the phone booth, with Jimmy in it--and then we cut to Jimmy hanging off a chain on the back of the truck. So you see, he was in the phone booth, but was completely uninjured when it collapsed, glass shattering, and he lay in the wreckage as it passed under the truck, then he sprung up just as the truck passed, at at least 40 miles per hour, in time to grab a chain hanging from the top of the truck's rear. It's just as clear as day how something like that could happen, so you'll of course understand why the film wouldn't need to SHOW it. Yep.

Jimmy then gets up on the top of the truck, opens the door, and throws the guy on the passenger side out. Now, the guy is thrown out of the speeding vehicle and if you watch closely you can see that he flies right into a roadside sign! Eeesh, that's gotta hurt, and it doesn't look like they meant it to happen. If you go frame-by-frame during this moment you can see that the guy's body breaks a 2X4 with his ribcage as he's falling! Ow!

So Jack goes to Detroit where he gets the serum after a prolonged and awesome shootout. Then Keyes goes to Detroit, where he recruits an old kung fu buddy and they take on a few dozen guards at this water plant and he retrieves his part of the serum. I was thinking how funny it would be if our confident but dim-witted heroes tried to "destroy" the serum by pouring it down the drain.

Meanwhile, you have been noticing that Feather's compound and its inhabitants are starting to bear unmistakable parallels to Nazis, which will be affirmed when they start unfurling VERY Nazi-esque flags. Meanwhile, Jimmy goes and has his own shootout and rescues his own vial of serum. During this time you will note that rapid-fire machine guns have almost nothing on Jimmy's single-shot pistol.

Then all the guys fly back to L.A. [I guess they've got a fair amount of time in which to resolve this crisis] and team up to storm Feather's complex and rescue Wendy. For the purpose, they have a van full of guns of all types. Now the Nazi allusions are flying fast and furious, with the bad guys having a party with big Nazi-esque flags, listening to music that verges on Polka and drinking from big beer steins. I guess the stereotype that has gone down in history is that Nazis had really boring parties. They have a big shootout where they blow up key buildings on the compound, rescue Wendy, kill Feather and company, and blow up a bunch of cars. Then they guys all split up and that's the end.
< < < SPOILERS END

This is definitely going to put a smile on your face. One, it's blaxploitation, with not one, not two, but THREE big icons of the genre teaming up to kick ass while wearing awesome snug leather outfits. Two, it's completely silly, with a big, ridiculous, over-the-top plot that you don't have to worry too much about following. But finally, what really makes it special, is the inclusion of so many small little exciting surprises, starting with the sudden crowbar to the guard's face and just going from there. Each action scene just has a little unexpected element that makes it a little bit special, and sets this movie apart. It's ludicrous and over-the-top awesome, putting showing you a good time ahead of making any sense, which is what I call a gracious host.

Should you watch it: 

FOR FUCK'S SAKE, YES!!!