Sunday, August 11, 2013

Cleopatra Jones

Back in the 60's and 70's, several attempts were made at a "female James Bond." Honey West and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. went heavy on gadgetry. There was the Ginger pictures (in which our heroine was most Bondlike in her skill at fucking her enemies into submission) and the Brits tried a lady spy series called Go Girl! (Bondlike for accents and ripoff credits).

But as far as embodying the deadly glamour and "I own this room" charisma of Bond, the closest you'll come is Cleopatra Jones. As portrayed by the 6'2" Tamara Dobson, Cleo is a couture-wearing, karate-kicking high-level CIA agent whose movies combined fashion and feminism, blaxploitation and martial arts, spy movie thrills and social consciousness.

 Cleopatra Jones opens with one of the best badass hero introductions in the movies: Landing by helicopter in the middle  of the desert, with dignitaries of all nations lined up to meet you. Then you give the signal for the RAF to wipe out "$30 million on the street" worth of poppies -- not a hand wave, but a Avedon/Verushka for Vogue-style flourish of your fox-trimmed cloak.

Dobson's wardrobe throughout is by Giorgio di Sant'Angelo. The designer went nuts on furs, hat, turbans, boots, capes and statement jewelry. If this sounds slightly impractical, dig her maxidresses with breakaway skirts for fight scenes. Probably 99% of humanity would look ridiculous in at least one, if not all of these outfits, but Tamara Dobson carries every one them off like the supermodel she was.

Immediately after the explosions, we meet Mommy aka Shelley Winters. She's a drug lord (drug lady?) and that was her poppy field Cleo wiped out. She's hanging around one of those big paneled & draped offices every top villain in the 70's had. We will only see Shelley Winters on this set -- until the very last scene, and i imagine that they needed a pair of muscleboys in hot pants carrying a plate of spaghetti and a couple of pints to lead her there.

Although here Shelley is a big ol' lesbian with a wardrobe of ghastly wigs that have model names like "The Buffalo Chicken" and "Pubic Hair." She's also got a taste for young stuff: As she says to whatever stretch-panted blonde, brunette or redhead is wandering around her office, "You're the only one around here who gives a shit about Mommy." I just hope she's hooking Miss Teen Poughkeepsie up with smack for services rendered. Or, better yet, before they are rendered: I can't imagine it is a muff that one is eager to dive into...
Mommy decides the thing to do is send the cops she's bought off to bust Cleo's pet charity, a narco/alco recovery house run by her dashingly turtlenecked and Afro-ed boyfriend. So there's a bust, with plenty of stereotypical nasty cracker pig cops wrecking the house and roughing people up and planting drugs on a sobbing ex-junkie.

So Ms. Cleopatra Jones packs up what i can only imagine is six Louis Vuitton trunks of her finest outfits and goes back to Cali with more chutzpah than LL Cool J and Biggie put together. A pair of thugs meet her at the airport, but lose her -- only for her to reappear sliding down the baggage chute. She uses her mad kung fu skills, but the bad guys eventually draw guns...

As the police run toward Cleo, guns drawn, she smirks and flips out her CIA I.D. One cannot help but enjoy the turning-of-the-tables as the cops now show her deference, in comparison to their behavior in the previous scene.
Works even better than a "Stand Your Ground" law, officers.
Now, I need you to do two things. One, step out of my way. Two, suck it. I'll let you pick the order.

Cleo meets with the police chief, played by that guy who was also Kojak's Chief of Police, who is nothing if not apologetic (he did not approve the bust, apparently). She's pissed about the raid on her boyfriend's halfway house and she's pissed about all the dope in her old neighborhood and she's pissed about the cops being assholes. CoP says he'll handle it, but nothing doing. As Cleo says, "My jurisdiction extends from Ankara, Turkey to Watts Tower, baby!" Why would one think it's a good idea to have this woman on your doorstep and mad as hell?

She brokers a 72-hour truce between the cops and the brothers to get to the bottom of who ordered the raid and who sent those assholes to the airport. When the bad guys put a bullet in Cleo's man, she throws down, revealing an in-car arsenal that would put Puff Daddy's to shame.

Boyfriend is now out of commission. This shoot-the-boyfriend move gets pulled a number of times in these female-centric blaxploitation movies (i.e, Sugar Hill, Foxy Brown). It leaves our heroine to TCB alone, while making sure we get her man's not a coward and rubbing off a bit of her potentially virago edges -- if he was able to save the day, he would and/or she might let him. But he's not, so....

 Hey! It's Huggy Bear! Yes, Antonio Fargas himself shows up as a flashy drug dealer who questions the intelligence of Shelley Winters' plan to poke a stick into the giant hornet's nest of fierceness and fury that is Cleopatra Jones. Legit question! In the meantime, Cleo has enlisted the Johnson Brothers, who are part cavalry, part comic relief. (And if Melvin ain't high on weed, i don't know who is.)
 Another recurring motif in Cleopatra Jones is men appreciating the awesomeness of Cleopatra Jones, either as she arrives, as she leaves or both -- seriously, it probably adds about 10 minutes to the flick. Cleo has no interest in going incognito: Her flamboyant presence is the dead opposite of the usual agent cover, but it seems to work just as well. She's not going to blend in anyway, so why not rock a turban and a T-top Corvette and let the males of the world marvel at the majesty?

The Corvette comes in handy during a ten-minute Bullit-esque car chase. This movie certainly believes in giving the people what they want: Fast cars, kung fu, one-liners, crazy fresh outfits. Did i mention the part where she wins the dirtbike race?
I'm going to assume that you can guess the outcome of the final showdown between the twentysomething 6'2" kung fu Amazon and the pudgy, sixtyish lady who drinks and screams a lot....
Cleopatra Jones has been an inspiration and an icon ever since this flick came out. It was followed up by Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold, another bust-the-narcos mission with the Johnson brothers and another lady-loving Ms. Big. It also had the added thrill of being a Shaw Bros. co-production, with New! Improved! martial arts action. I wouldn't say that Cleopatra Jones could replace James Bond, but i do wish she'd had more than two movies...

No comments:

Post a Comment