Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1975)
Cleopatra Jones has become a cult film for a number of reasons. Despite the fact that it was a PG film and was generally blaxploitation-lite, it had a number of great things going for it - the custom corvette, Cleopatra's ever-changing outfits, Shelly Winters's over-the-top performance as the main villain and just so much that screamed 1973. It was a product of a genre that came and went too fast.
It also incorporated martial arts. Martial arts films were popular with black movie-goers at the time, and the incorporation of actual martial arts fighting styles in Cleopatra Jones was a bit of a surprise, because in too many films of the time it was someone flailing their hands and feet around in what looked more like a seizure than an actual fighting style. Unfortunately, the popularity of Hong Kong imports started to fade at the same time as blaxploitation.
That's a shame, because it meant that the movie's sole sequel, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold, largely was forgotten.
Matthew (Albert Popwell) and Melvin Johnson (Caro Kenyatta) are undercover in Hong Kong to expose dope dealer Chen (Shen Chan). Problem is, Chen is trying to establish himself using the assets of his boss, the Dragon Lady (Stella Stevens), who runs her operation out of a casino in Macau. The Johnson brothers are captured, leading to Cleopatra Jones (Tamara Dobson) to head to Hong Kong to find out what happened to them, against the orders of her handler Stanley (Norman Fell).
After arriving in Hong Kong and narrowly escaping a beating in Kowloon's Walled City, Jones is rescued by Mi Ling Fong (Ni Tien), who also happens to be a secret agent. Together they try to find Chen, who fled when his boat was raided by his rivals, and rescue the Johnsons.
The original director and writer, Max Julien, decided he wanted nothing to do with the film, leading to a completely different writing and directing team. This time around they also worked with the Shaw Brothers studio, having access to a bevy of local talent for fight choreography and stunt work. The result is, while Cleopatra Jones was a bit on the light-hearted side, the sequel is a bit more violent and sexed-up. Like Mama, the Dragon Lady is also a lesbian crime lord, so I was afraid the movie would just be a carbon-copy of the first but with a different location.
Stella Stevens, thankfully, does not play the Dragon Lady in any way that reminds one of Shelly Winters. There is a gratuitous scene to introduce her predilections, but it isn't played for laughs like it was in the first film. Instead, the Dragon Lady is legitimately dangerous, challenging Chen to a swordfight (in an arena surrounded by sword blades, no less) and leads the raid on his boat herself with guns blazing. Her henchman Mendez (Christopher Hunt) is more like a James Bond heavy.
As for Tamara Dobson, some of the criticisms of Cleopatra Jones was that she was not the best actress. She has improved at this point, but her acting ability was never the point; the looks on the faces as she walks through the streets of Hong Kong are definitely not rehearsed, especially in her designer clothes and personal make-up designs. She is a striking figure and delivers some great lines this time around. She also seems quite willing to do many of her own stunts, but she never turns into an untouchable super hero. She does get herself in some situations where she is lucky that Mi Ling Fong is keeping an eye out for her. As for that character, Ni Tien is also believable as someone that can do the fighting required, although English acting was definitely not her forte.
While Cleopatra Jones had one of the best '70s car chases (through the L.A. River), the one here through the streets of Hong Kong is good but not at the same level. Where it does exceed its predecessor is a lot of the fight scenes and general stunt work. Many of the martial arts fights are filmed at a distance so one can see what is going on, and having a number of actors and crew that typically worked for Shaw Brothers helped immensely. One of the highlights is Locke Hua Liu, who plays Mi Ling Fong's assistant Tony. In one scene her pursues Chen, wrecking his bike numerous times (often not appearing to have been scripted), and in the final battle rampages through the casino on his bike, performing a stunt where he sends it flying off a balcony while he grabs hold of a chandelier.
The major criticism I have of the movie is some post-production work that undermines the tone of the film. Whenever the Johnson brothers or Cleopatra enter the casino, obviously dubbed-in voices make comments. No one's mouths are even moving, and it seems like a failed attempt to amp up the "exotic" nature of seeing black people in that part of the world. It is quite distracting as it comes at times where it should be setting up Bond-like confrontations between Jones and the Dragon Lady. This is in no way a dark or gritty film, but the tone throughout is that it is meant to be taken a bit more seriously than its predecessor. It has light points that come naturally, but shoe-horning audio like this doesn't make a bit of sense.
For the most part, however, we get what we are promised with this type of film, and I am satisfied with that. In some ways I even find it a little better than the original, although I miss the groovy sense of style of the original. Because of the changing times Cleopatra Jones never got another story, and Tamara Dobson herself ended up doing supporting roles, most notably in Jonathan Demme's 1983 women-in-prison film Chained Heat. It may be for the better, since I can sense that the next step would have been to do something similar to Rush Hour, with Mi Ling Fong coming to Los Angeles to help Cleopatra out with another bunch of dirty drug dealers.
Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1975)
Time: 94 minutes
Starring: Tamara Dobson, Ni Tien, Albert Popwell, Caro Kenyatta, Stella Stevens
Director: Charles Bail