Movies We Like
Three The Hard Way
One of the goofiest flicks of the Back Exploitation era, for gratuitous comic book quality, Three The Hard Way features the superstar teaming of Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, and Jim Kelly, who manage to shoot and karate chop dozens of people in the process of trying to stop a neo-Nazi millionaire’s plot to poison the water supply with a serum that kills blacks (whites are immune to it). As imagined, everything about this film is over the top; it’s Shaft times three, but director Gordon Parks Jr. is not his father, so it’s actually an entertainingly epic, low-rent affair (Parks Sr. directed Shaft and was a majorly acclaimed photographer). Don’t question the plot too closely or look under the rug, just sit back and enjoy the inane violent fun.
Monroe Feather (Jay Robinson, better remembered as Dr. Shrinker from the Saturday morning Krofft Supershow) wants to be known as more than just an evil fascist industrialist, so with the aid of Dr. Fortrero (Richard Angarola) and their seemingly giant army of gunmen, they put their poison water plan into effect, going after the water supply of Los Angeles, Detroit, and DC. Luckily music mogul Jimmy Lait (Brown) gets wind of it and tracks down the two baddest dudes he knows, a player with a big gun, Jagger Daniels (Williamson), and a kung fu master, Mister Keyes (Kelly). Somehow Feather hears about our heroes and sends his goons after the badass trio and seems to be aided by the corrupt honky police force, as well. Out of nowhere a massive shoot out takes place in a car wash, the super friends take a goon prisoner and with the help of three motorcycle riding, topless dominatrixes (a black, white and Asian woman) get the full lowdown on the which water supplies they need to protect. In a couple of cool action scenes, each guy fights off a Nazi army in each of the three cities (three the hard way!). Finally leading to a showdown with Feather himself.
By the mid-'70s the Black Exploitation genre had peaked and was already becoming a spoof of itself. Like James Bond films that went from being fairly realistic to James Bond in space, Black Exploitation had left its original targets - white corruption and inner city poverty - and had gone big, world domination. A James Bond type of villain replaced the usual white gangster villain. And any resemblance to reality was lost, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Action and ultra violence can be fun and Three The Hard Way does it well. Some of the talent behind the camera may explain why the action easily makes up for the slapped together script. Robert Swink (Papillon) was the editor, Lucien Ballard (The Wild Bunch) shot it, and Hal Needham was the stunt coordinator. Of course as Burt Reynolds’s boy, Needham went one to become the director of Burt’s yahoo Smokey And The Bandit and Cannonball Run films.
Jim Kelly earned his kung fu street credit battling Bruce Lee in Enter The Dragon, but there wasn’t much acting skill behind his muscles, while Brown and Williamson ooze charisma. After playing Spearchucker Jones in MASH, Williamson never quite found the roles to match his cool charm; Three The Hard Way is probably his most memorable title of the era. It’s too bad Williamson had the chops to do more than the Euro-trash he was stuck in by the '80s, but he was always the renaissance man, directing, producing, and writing dozens of straight to cable titles. After a massive but short lived football career, Jim Brown went right to work in good movies, like The Dirty Dozen, Ice Station Zebra, and Dark Of The Sun, but like many black actors the quality roles didn’t continue and Black Exploitation was where he ended up. He never lived up to the potential, though he shines in Spike Lee’s fascinating documentary about him, Jim Brown: All American.
Forgetting the term “Black Exploitation,” Three The Hard Way is memorable as a piece of '70s action exploitation. Solid junk that gets the job done. Some of the ridiculousness is laugh out loud funny. The violence, though gratuitous, is closer to the cartoony action of a Hong Kong cinema flick than say, the work of Sam Peckinpah. One can sense that the three leads enjoyed working together, were happy to be there, and knew they were doing something entertaining, making the film even more fun to watch.
If you really want your money’s worth, pick up the Warner Brothers Urban Action Collection DVD, two discs with four films (though no groovy extras). Besides Three The Hard Way it includes Jim Kelly’s watchable Black Belt Jones and its ambitious, but amazingly horrible kinda-sorta sequel Hot Potato. The fourth title is a good find, Black Sampson starring Rockne Tarkington as a dude protecting his hood from a gangster played by the great '70s B-movie tough guy William Smith (remembered best as the creepy Falconetti in Rich Man, Poor Man). Maybe that’s what is best about Black Exploitation cinema and why it’s so enjoyable - if you have the right expectations, you always get your money’s worth.