Somehow I had gotten it into my head that this was second-tier blaxploitation, maybe because it just isn't among the most popular titles and doesn't have a big star in it, or maybe because its Marvin Gaye soundtrack far overshadows the film itself, but this was a mistake, as this is one of the best, most exciting, vivid and involving blaxploitation movies I've ever seen.
We open with Robert Hooks as Mr. T. [not THAT Mr. T.] leaving one of his women by the pool. She asks when she's going to see him again, and he says "I'm going to have to think about that." As you will soon learn, you don't get a hold on Mr. T…. Mr. T. gets a hold on YOU. So we start to hear the famous theme from Trouble Man as performed by Marvin Gaye on his trippy and complex soundtrack album, only the version playing in the film has someone singing over the track—someone who does not sound like Marvin Gaye—and it's thrown together in such a poor mix it may be kind of a shock for those familiar with the soundtrack. While the credits continue we watch T drive around in his massive cream and brown Lincoln Mark V, and discover that the "technical assistant to the composer" is Robert O. Ragland, who would go on to achieve renown as the absolute worst composer EVER, as heard in films such as Grizzly, Abby and Q: Winged Serpent. Almost everyone here is a veteran of TV. Robert Hooks was also in Airport 77 and Star Trek III. Paula Kelly, T's girlfriend, was also in Cool Breeze and was a notable piece of furniture [the one with the yogurt!] in Soylent Green. Julius Harris, as Big, was also in a number of other blaxploitation gems including Super Fly, Black Caesar and Friday Foster, as well as the Taking of Pelham One Two Three and the 76 King Kong. Not to mention an episode of BJ and the Bear. The director, Ivan Dixon, is best known as "Kinch" from Hogan's Heroes, where he was a regular for 140 episodes, then had a prolific career directing television.
Okay, so T goes home, where he opens up his closet that is covered in metallic foil circle-pattern wallpaper and pulls out an awesome black and gold tie that is about four inches wide. He goes to this pool hall, where some guy challenges him to a game. While his opponent, who does a hilariously cocky stretch while staring at T, makes his shots, T hears from this guy that this woman he knows lives in a run-down apartment building with a railing that gave out, sending her baby to the ICU, and could T go talk to the white landlord? So this is what T does: he's not a gangster or a politician, but a powerful neighborhood guy who runs the neighborhood in an unofficial way, taking money for favors and keeping people in line. By this time we have noticed that the direction is stylish and energetic, and the sociology and levels of power of this world clearly laid out and peopled with vivid characters. The scene of course ends with T destroying his competition on the pool table, which features some amazing billiard shots.
So this pair of thugs, the black Chalky and the white Pete, played by Daddy Walton himself, Ralph Waite, elicit T's help with something, and in the middle of this he stops by the landlord of the building where the baby got injured and threatens him if the baby's hospital bills aren't paid and the building fixed up. At one point the landlord says "That's not my responsibility" and T says "I'm MAKING it your responsibility," causing me to chuckle at the possibility that T could be mistakenly threatening the janitor and issuing a fatwa on his life if he doesn't clean up this building he has nothing to do with. Returning to the car, T agrees to help Chalky and Pete, then goes home, where we face some frankly unbelievable interior design. Okay, look below. On the left you have this repeating star pattern rendered in black and tan metallic foil wallpaper [complete with oversized wooden spoon], and on the right, in the living room, this giant 'X' pattern on the wall, also in Earth tones and shiny metals. And don't forget the circle-pattern metallic foil in the bedroom… dude has a schema going on, regardless of what you may think about it. My God, I JUST had the inspiration for a series where Queer Eye comes to "help" our male blaxploitation characters with their décor and wardrobe… Holy shit would that be amazing.
Okay, so now we introduce T's woman, Cleo. She is a natural African-American woman with a small 'fro [she actually has the exact same hair T does] and comes out wearing this green dress with weird holes cut out of the shoulders and arms. She's supposed to be a singer. T leaves again, and a few minutes later he calls her while she is practicing on the piano at home, wearing this indescribable THING that is supposed to be vaguely Egyptian-like and makes her arms into these huge wings. She is a SONG BIRD.
SPOILERS > > >
So T goes over to this private craps game at some house. We have a scene before that lets us at home know that Chalky and Pete are actually planning to set T up. They have warned T about this gang that holds up games like the one going on while wearing masks. They have a guy in a blue suit that matches one of the robber's suits, and after the robbers get away, they switch this dude out, and Chalky kills him. This both gets the money and kills this other dude they want to get rid of, and pins the blame for the robberies elsewhere. T takes off, and while he's gone the baddies dump the body, the police find it, and T is arrested! He is hauled in for a chat with Captain Marx, where we have some delightfully rich character dialogue. I love when Marx asks T how the bail bondmen heard about the murder when his body had just been found, and T says "Jungle drums, man." The detective both wants to bring T in as a big score, but he also respects T and knows he's very smart… and all this adds up to some surprisingly rich characterization and excellent scenes.
So then T goes to see Big, one of the main crime bosses in town, and they both agree that something is fishy, but he won't go see Chalky and Pete. T also sees Chalky and Pete, who refuse to go see Big. So they agree to meet at the pool hall. In the meantime, T calls his informants, one boxer who he pays $30 for information, and this woman, Lucille, first seen doing stretches in her leotards, who asks only that T stop by and see her. You will notice, of course, that T pays his male informants in cash, while all his female informants want is some of his lovin'. There's also a brief scene with Cleo, dressed in this painful-to-the-eye yellow turtleneck, where we establish that if you want to hold on to Mr. T., you better give him a real loose chain.
So T comes to the pool hall and tells his main man, Jimmy, that they're closing, now, and he does NOT want to know anything about why. Everyone leaves immediately upon hearing that T said to close, except one guy, who turns out to be one of Big's advance men. Then Big himself comes—in this jacket whose pattern is something to behold. They discuss how they know something is fishy, but don't know what it is. Someone says the cops are coming, so all present pretend to be playing pool. But then—shocker!—the cops assassinate Big! That was outta NOWHERE, lemme tell ya. T makes it look as though HE killed Big, and is arrested. Captain Marx knows he'll have to release T in the morning, but holds him overnight—just for sadistic fun. He even, in a really low blow, makes sure there's no toilet paper in T's cell.
< < < SPOILERS END
Okay, I'm not going to tell you how it ends. Not that it's so surprising, but it is amazingly well done. This is one of those movies where clichés—or tropes that went on to become clichés—are very much present, but also WORK. Therefore the whole thing that whatever T says goes, that people are afraid of him and that he owns the entire town seem entirely credible and real, not just something they're throwing in because that's the way all blaxploitation heroes are. It comes out in a lot of little lines and asides that just fill in that picture without ever having to come out and announce it. Another cliché that works here is that when the big showdown is coming, everyone clears out of town, especially Chalky, who is terrified. T calls up Jimmy and Cleo and tells them to get out of town for a week and they don't ask a question. Shootouts are quick, intense, and make logical sense—you can tell where everyone is and what their strategy is. And you know the cliché of the action hero who "strikes like lightning…" well, here T strikes like lightning, swift and brutal, and it's convincing, not some motions we have to go through. And the shootout that follows is tense because the villains are terrified, knowing what T has in store for them. There's no snappy kiss-off lines, no thugs making arrogant boasts or foolish blazes of glory, just sudden, brutal bursts of gunfire and shootouts that make spatial sense.
What else? As I've been saying, all of the characters are rich and vivid. We can tell exactly that Jimmy is T's closest confidante, and we know exactly what the story is there, without the movie having to tell us and without it becoming a stale cliché. That's one thing I can say about the whole movie; it is written so well that it gets a great deal of information, about characters, the world they live in, and their place in that world, without having to hit you over the head with it or making you feel like "Okay, here's the exposition, here's the character building…" The movie contains some great character scenes with these interesting people, and also has a number of ingenious twists up its sleeve. The primary double-cross is simple and clever enough it believably takes T until later into the movie to figure it out—avoiding that feeling that your hero is stupid because he can't figure out something that is obvious—and the assassination of another main character comes as a true surprise. And again, in contrast to most action movies, the action sequences here are completely spatially understandable.
I must also mention that this film, while it may skimp on laughable hip 70 dialogue, does not stint on incredible clothing and décor. I had to just stop writing down astonishing visuals I wanted to record because there are just too many. This movie is very well-written and intelligently directed. This is not only one, if not THE best blaxploitation movie I've ever seen, and also one of the top five best action movies I've ever seen. An amazing and exciting little gem.
YES! If you like blaxploitation or even just action or crime movies, this is really one of the best.