Produced by Harry Bernson
Directed by Gordon Parks, Jr.
Written by Eric Bercovici and Jerrold L. Ludwig
Music by The Impressions
Here’s where we throw anything resembling objective film criticism out of the window, friends. You see, we’re dealing with THREE THE HARD WAY here, which is a top shelf example of the blaxploitation genre that along with Kung Fu movies populated most of the grindhouse movie theatres on 42end Street during the 70’s. Theatres that my friends and I practically lived in on Saturdays. We’d go check out three movies for $3.00 and frequently would leave one theatre and cross the street and go into another and see three more movies. Ah, good times…with only $10 in my pocket I was in movie heaven.
The plot of THREE THE HARD WAY is as simple and uncomplicated as a peanut butter sandwich: Monroe Feather (Jay Robinson) is the charismatic head of a Neo-Nazi white supremacist organization. He has bankrolled the research of Dr. Fortrero (Richard Angarola) and the result is a toxin that will only kill African-Americans. Dr. Fortrero explains that it’s based on sickle cell anemia which as he says with smug Caucasian superiority: “We all know only affects blacks!”
Dr Fortrero has been keeping a large number of black men and women imprisoned in a compound that he’s been using them as guinea pigs. One of the test subjects breaks away and manages to reach a friend of his, a Los Angeles record producer named Jimmy Lait (Jim Brown) Feather sends men to kill Jimmy’s friend and in the process they kidnap Jimmy’s girlfriend, Wendy Kane (Sheila Frazier). Jimmy’s forced to stop work producing the next hit album of The Impressions (and yes, there was an actual group with that name…go Google it and learn something) as he tries to find Wendy and uncover the conspiracy.
He recruits two friends of his to help: the slick, smooth and totally cool public relations king of Detroit, Jagger Daniels (Fred Williamson) and world famous karate champion/martial arts expert Mister Keyes (Jim Kelly) and as the tag line of the movie boasts: “Action explodes all over the place as the big three unite to save their race!” They get into a shootout with some of Feather’s hitmen who have been following Jimmy and by questioning one of them find out that Feather is sending squads of heavily armed men to Washington, DC, Los Angeles and Chicago to poison the water supply with the toxin. The three heroes separate to the three cities to stop Feather’s men and then unite to rescue Wendy and bring down The Man.
Look, I’m not going to try and con you into watching THREE THE HARD WAY by attributing all kinds of socio-political subtexts and psychological levels of Black Awareness to a movie that simply has none. THREE THE HARD WAY is about one thing: getting together the three hottest black action movie heroes at that time and turning them loose to do what they do best: kick ass. They don’t even bother with the taking names part. They’re too cool for that.
Jim Brown and Fred Williamson spend a lot of the movie’s running time just trying to out cool each other (Williamson wins) and surprisingly, Brown has moments where he really tries to act and show he’s not just in the movie to look tough, bark orders and dress pretty. Fred Williamson is shameless in his rampant scene stealing which he does every time he’s on screen. He’s clearly the best natural actor out of the three as both Brown and especially Jim Kelly look much more at home during the action scenes. Sheila Frazier plays Brown’s girlfriend Wendy and quite frankly she’s got all the sex appeal of a broom handle. Her role is a thankless one as she has little more to do than get slapped around by the bad guys and scream: “You just wait till my man gets here!”
There’s a bunch of fun scenes in this one: The scene where Jimmy goes to Jagger to ask for his help and Jagger turns him down because he just doesn’t believe such a fantastic story. The two men are ambushed by a hoard of assassins and in a furious shootout at an outdoor arcade kill them all.
Standing knee deep in a pile of bodies, Jimmy asks Jagger: “Do you believe me now?”
Jagger: “Shit, you shoulda explained it like that in the first place.”
When Jimmy, Jagger and Keyes are getting nowhere interrogating one of Feather’s men, Jagger calls in The Duchess, The Countess and The Princess, a trio of women. One’s black, one Asian and one white. One dresses in red, one in white and one in blue. They ride color coordinated motorcycles. And they are bad. Jagger assures his friends that the three women can make the prisoner talk. There’s a terrific scene where Jagger and Keyes are playing chess and listening to the screams coming from upstairs. The three women tell Jagger and Keyes they can go talk to the guy. The guy doesn’t have a mark on him but he acts like he’s been dragged through Hell’s bathroom and he spills his guts.
There’s a scene where the cops are harassing Mister Keyes and they ask for his driver’s license. One cop reads it and smirks: “What kinda first name is ‘Mister’?”
Jim Kelly responds without missing a beat: “My momma wanted to make sure people showed me respect.”
And that’s just a few of them. THREE THE HARD WAY probably isn’t going to appeal to a lot of movie fans today. It looks like it was filmed on weekends with a budget of about nine thousand bucks. The plot holes are big enough to throw a pimpmobile through. The acting is sometimes embarrassing. The action sequences look like they were made up on the spot. Despite having automatic weapons the bad guys seem incapable of hitting anything while the good guys pick them off with one shot apiece from their handguns.
But THREE THE HARD WAY is a helluva lot of fun if you approach it in the right way. Jim Brown and Fred Williamson have an undeniable magnetism and screen presence. They know how to keep your attention on what they’re doing while they’re doing it. Jim Kelly shows his magnificent martial arts skills in several awesome fight scenes. Back in the day, the only guy better than Jim Kelly was Bruce Lee. Woefully, this isn’t Kelly’s best movie. Matter of fact, he’s much better in “Enter The Dragon” or “Black Belt Jones” and he looks downright uncomfortable in a lot of scenes where he just has to stand around and react to the dialog of others but then again, THREE THE HARD WAY isn’t a movie you watch for acting chops.
So should you see THREE THE HARD WAY? Absolutely. It’s one of the classics of blaxploitation and notable for it’s teaming of the biggest black action heroes at the time in one movie. If you’ve got any love at all for the genre, show some love back and the next time you feel funky on a Saturday night, watch THREE THE HARD WAY.
If you want to see THREE THE HARD WAY as well as three other blaxploitation movies of that era: “Black Belt Jones” “Hot Potato” and “Black Samson” next time you hit Target see if you can find the Warner Brothers 4 Film Favorites: Urban Action Collection. I got my copy a few years and paid $9.99 for it. I’m fairly certain you can get it for five bucks now. Even though “Hot Potato” is a big disappointment, it’s still worth your money. Enjoy.