I recently bought a DVD boxed set called ‘50 Drive-In Classics’ off Amazon, and it arrived last Wednesday. I had assumed that these movies would be “classics” in much the same way that tuberculosis is a classic disease, or shoving bamboo slivers under someone’s fingernails is a classic torture. I duly called my fellow Bad Cinema aficionados together for the first of what will be many screenings, and we were not disappointed. Our introductory movie, 1974’s ‘TNT Jackson
’, was a classic in the vein of the Tay Bridge Disaster.
The stars, in order of relative blaxploitation importance, were:
Jeanne "she ain't no Pam Grier" Bell as Diana “TNT” Jackson.
Jeanne Bell did quite well in her acting career: it's a long way from Playboy centerfold to blaxploitation martial arts queen. Or maybe not all that far, since the most memorable scene in this movie involved Jeanne delivering righteous smackdown on some bad guys while wearing nothing but a pair of tiny panties. It’s her first starring role, and she still somehow manages to invent an entirely new martial art: Boob-Fu.
Boob-Fu: it’s the martial art that’s sweeping the world! Or at least certain grubby cinemas.
Stan "he ain't no Richard Roundtree" Shaw as Charlie.
Charlie is a more than just an amazing afro with legs. He’s a drug runner with ambitions to take over the whole damn business. He also hopes that someone, someday will invent the button so that he can at last do up his shirts.
Charlie has an eye for the ladies, especially the ass-kickin’ chocolate sister who’s just wandered into his life. Too bad that a) she’s preoccupied with finding her brother’s murderer and b) he is that murderer.
Pat "she ain't no Roberta Collins" Anderson as Elaine.
The role of skinny uptight white woman is an essential but thankless one in blaxploitation. She's the character who keeps the narrative rolling along while the stars strike disdainful poses and call each other "sucka". In this case, Elaine is the gangster’s moll of Sid the drug lord, although it turns out that she’s really a government agent who has infiltrated his cartel. Personally if I were her employers I’d be a tad concerned about the Occupational Health and Safety implications of requiring her to boink skeezy drug pushers as part of her job, but I guess things were a little more relaxed in the ‘70s.
Ken "he ain't... well, anyone, really" Metcalfe as Sid.
Sid is the drug kingpin, who rules over the sales of heroin in Hong Kong with a pale, WASPy fist. Ken Metcalfe had a decades-long working relationship with producer/director Cirio Santiago, which explains why he turned up in so many of the latter’s films, including 1976’s ‘She Devils in Chains’ and 1978’s ‘Vampire Hookers’*. However in addition to the acting ‘TNT Jackson’ was also his first effort as a scriptwriter. He thus stands doubly condemned.
Given that the first precept of good writing is to “write what you know”, one wonders why his very first script was a piece of blaxploitation… he is, after all, whiter than a Mormon family picnic. Does he have experience as an oily and heartless drug dealer, or as an oppressor of the black race?
Then again, I did say that writing what you know was the first precept of good
So much for our characters. Success in blaxploitation comes from a surprisingly subtle blend of charismatic actors, groovy costume and set design, a health dash of social commentary and a fun story. And if you’re going to blend it with the kung-fu action genre, it also needs convincing fight choreography. When Tamara Dobson or Chuck Norris kicked ass in ‘70s martial arts movies, they gave the impression of knowing exactly what they were doing. However Jeanne Bell and Pat Anderson have kung-fu scenes that sputter along like a drag race between a couple of early model Trabants. Jeanne obviously had little experience with martial arts, to judge from her faltering movements and awkward gestures, although the action becomes much smoother when her stunt double takes over.
Costumes? Well, they certainly took their flares seriously. Set design? It’s supposed to be Hong Kong but it was actually shot in the Philippines, so Honkers looks a little more downmarket than normal. Social commentary? The title character does rail against “the pigs” at one point… so I guess that counts.
But at least the makers of ‘TNT Jackson’ had a triumph in realising that, at its core, any blaxploitation movie really only needs two things: breasts, and plenty of them. There’s a veritable Benetton-style United Colours of Boobies. Asian breasts! Caucasian breasts! Afro-American breasts! And more Asian breasts! And that’s before we even get to the introduction of Boob-Fu.
Ah, Boob-Fu. Yes. A small reminder:
Mmmm. Good times.* a film, incidentally, that I will not rest until I own.