Wednesday 7 November 2012

One Down, Two to Go (1982)

Director: Fred Williamson
Stars: Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Jim Kelly and Richard Roundtree
When I asked him at FearCon V to personally pick a couple of movies out of his filmography for me to review, Fred Williamson declined in character as the Hammer, suggesting that any picture he's ever been in is automatically worthy of being reviewed. I'd beg to differ, having seen some of the turkeys he's been in, and even he had to laugh when I brought up the unreedemable Fist of Fear, Touch of Death. So I picked a couple of Hammer movies which appear to have meaning but which I haven't previously seen. First up is the rather appropriately titled One Down, Two to Go, because Williamson isn't just the star, he's also the writer, producer and director. He'd gone beyond acting early on, first writing and producing in 1975 with the western Boss Nigger, then directing the following year's Mean Johnny Barrows, but this one features a blaxploitation dream team, not just the Hammer but Shaft, Slaughter and Black Samurai to boot.

That sort of team up was exactly what blaxploitation needed in 1982. Exploding onto the movie scene in 1971 with Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and Shaft, it was huge for half a decade but tailed off quickly at the end of the seventies. However most of the stars of those films were still around and just as good as, if not better than, in the genre's heyday. Three of the stars seen here, Fred Williamson, Jim Brown and Jim Kelly, had teamed up together in Three the Hard Way back in 1974, so it wasn't a stretch to reunite the team, especially with Richard Roundtree added into the mix. Unfortunately it doesn't live up to that potential and one of its biggest flaws is that it never treats these legends as a team, separating them up as much as possible for most of the film. Otherwise it's enjoyable but predictable and pedestrian, Williamson much better on screen where he can exploit his charisma than behind the scenes calling the shots.

It opens up strongly enough at the Brendan Byrne Arena in New Jersey, where a host of martial artists break boards with their fists and feet even while the opening credits roll. This is the warm up to a winner take all karate tournament, which looks a lot more like kickboxing to me but I'm not going to quibble because the fighters really go for it. Williamson wanted authenticity, so he told them to fight for real with the winner of each fight getting five hundred bucks but the loser only a hundred. That's a far cry from the fictional $400,000 on the line in the California vs New York match we're here to see, but it was a lot of money back in 1982. The California team coach, Chuck Wells, is at ringside. That's Jim Kelly with a much smaller afro than I'm used to seeing him in. Richard Roundtree is there too, playing his friend Ralph in a pristine white suit, but they're worried. Something's wrong and Wells wanders off to the dressing rooms to find out what it is.
The good news is that he finds out: Mr Rossi has taken a hundred grand to fix the fights. He's a local businessman who runs a tow company but presumably a lot more. I don't think it ever tells us that he's in the mob but it's pretty obvious with character names like Mr Rossi and Mr Mario. The bad news is that even in the eighties, Jim Kelly had to be stylin' so his bright red and yellow outfit fails utterly to blend into the dim green walls and the nameless local hoods get to slow him down. Jim Kelly vs The Nameless Local Hoods wouldn't be much of a movie and it isn't much of a fight, over before it begins, but one of them decides to slow him down with a bullet and that's a bit more successful. Exit Kelly stage left for most of the rest of the film. Enter Richard Roundtree instead, to pester fight promoter Joe Spangler for their winnings and to team up with sexy bargirl Teri, played by Paula Sills, to spirit their buddy off to a cabin to recover from being shot.

Roundtree is solid here and it's a good thing. Kelly never was a great actor, being watchable not for his stagecraft but for his style and his moves, neither of which get much exposure here. With Fred Williamson and Jim Brown both still conspicuously absent from the picture, that leaves 'the man who would risk his neck for his brother man' to take care of business and he does. The best acting in the picture is when he asks Spangler for the money. For 'asks', read 'politely but firmly pressures', naturally, and he's believably tough but everyday. He's not putting on a star routine; for that we just have to wait for the Hammer to show up. When he and Brown ease into the film in Lincoln limos that get more screen time than Kelly, reality takes a notable raincheck. For now, we're doing the blaxploitation thing, with shifty white jerks bringing the pain to the honest black folk. Roundtree gets beaten down, Sills gets raped and kidnapped, while Kelly gets shot again.

So much for the low key approach. Rossi's hoods would have solved their problem if Teri hadn't rung a couple of numbers that Chuck gave her to call in the cavalry. Here's where Williamson ups the ante and the grittiness of the earlier scenes turns into flamboyance. Into town roll Cal and J in style to track down their friends, Chuck and Ralph, and stir up the pot until the money falls out. What's most astounding about this isn't how much Fred Williamson's stogie looks like a slim jim or how the black guys' handguns are twice as big as the white guys' (compensating for something, gentlemen?). It's that Sheriff Lucas, played well otherwise by Warrington Winters, is the most bizarre lawman I think I've ever seen in film. He pops up continually out of nowhere like he's a time traveller and he lets our heroes get away with everything. He may berate them, but he lets it be. Carry on shooting people and blowing things up! The law apparently doesn't mind.
And the rest is relatively predictable. There's a lot of filler here, with far too many shots of those limos or the Hammer's dog or Cal and J skulking around in the dark, but it delivers on the fronts that it aims at, albeit unimaginatively. The bad guys die quickly, the good guys slowly. There are periodic bouts of toughness, violence, brotherhood, redemption, breaks so the Hammer can get the ladies. And of course, Sheriff Lucas keeps showing up and doing precisely nothing else. This is all predictable but it's also dependable, capable and solid on the one hand but unimaginative and routine on the other. If you've only seen one blaxploitation movie before this, you won't get a single surprise from this one. Of course, it all unfolds to a funky score, which is actually pretty good this time round, in the hands of jazzman Rodney Franklin. For those more into rock than funk, it crosses that line on a few occasions but always stays appropriate for the material.

Williamson plays this one in standard persona. He's always sassy and knowing, less acting out a role and more just walking in front of the camera as he usually is with that Hammer grin on his face almost constantly. It's so personal that I could even believe that this performance wasn't aimed at the film's audience but any ladies hanging around on set behind the camera. Mostly because of this, he doesn't add much to the movie at all, except for one glorious scene at the enemy dojo. Refusing to be threatened by a big martial artist, he slips his even larger gun into the man's belly. 'You may be good at kung fu,' he quips, 'but I'm an expert in gun fu.' It's all the more joyous for being delivered straight. Brown is good with gun fu too, racking up most of the body count, but he's best being cool and threatening, like when he pressures the mob's money man at the bank. He doesn't move much but he demonstrates his dominance absolutely.

The film's problem is that these moments are there but rarely and almost always when there's only one of the stars in the scene. It's not often that they get to interact and, when they do, it's fleeting. Williamson's character needed more substance anyway, but with Kelly and Roundtree nowhere in sight, it needed it all the more. Brown does well, but not so much that he can carry the picture. It needed Kelly back on the screen, actually doing something other than being shot. It needed Roundtree back on the screen, working his subtle charms while Williamson hammed it up and Brown took care of business. More than anything, it needed all four of them to team up and be a joint force. It needed that to make the picture, but it really needed that to have any potential of sparking a blaxploitation revival. As it was, it came and it went and it didn't change anything. Instead, it sadly let the opportunity slide for other films to take a shot at.

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