Death Journey

Director: Fred Williamson   
Fred Williamson, Bernard Kirby, Art Maier

In 1971, the movie Shaft was released, creating a sensation not only at the box office, but also in the filmmaking community. Being the twelfth-highest grossing picture of the year made the community realize that maybe there was a market for black-oriented films. So for the next few years, a steady stream of black-oriented movies came out of the major studios, as well as from independent production companies. But after a few years went by, the "blaxploitation" era, as it was known, was all but dead. What caused it to die? Well, one theory I read pointed to successful movies like The Exorcist that weren't black-oriented. Although successful movies like those had little to no black people in them, black people went to see them in droves as well as whites. So filmmakers reasoned that making movies for a broader (read: white) audience would bring in more money than those aimed at a much narrower audience. But whatever the cause or causes were, the genre had all but died by the mid 1970s. This caused the careers of many black performers in these movies to suffer greatly. Pam Grier flirted with a couple of major studio movies after leaving American-International Pictures, but none of those movies took off. It didn't help that afterwards, she took several years off, and by the time she returned to movies she had been forgotten by many. Jim Brown suddenly found himself in foreign-financed cheapies after making hits like Slaughter and Three The Hard Way. And Ron O'Neal, after starring in the sensation Super Fly, greatly damaged his career by directing as well as starring in the terrible sequel Super Fly T.N.T., a blow that his career never really recovered from.

There was one black performer of the era, however, that to date has found steady work in the film business since the blaxplotation era died. That person is Fred Williamson. I once read an interview with him where he was questioned about his feelings when the blaxploitation era ended. He more or less said that it didn't hurt his film career at all - he always managed to find work somewhere in the world (like Italy), or he made work for himself. Looking at Williamson's resume, I found that to be true - he has always had steady employment since he first entered films. And not just as an actor, but as a director and a producer as well. He got behind the camera as a necessary way to continue his filmmaking career. When major studios stopped making blaxploitation movies, he felt it was up to himself to get his movies made. So he made his own production company (Po' Boy Pictures) and took a look at the world market. He discovered that past black-themed movies had been sold to other countries for a pittance because foreign distributors had convinced the American film companies that black movies did not sell overseas. Williamson didn't believe there was no world market for black-themed movies, so he decided to not only make his movies his way, he would sell them his way. After making his movies, he would go to film festivals like Cannes, and set up some sort of selling center in the festival, one that he personally would be running, and talking directly to foreign distributors. Distributors, impressed that they were talking to the star of the movies themselves, forked over more cash for the rights to Williamson's films than they would have done normally, resulting in Williamson making healthy profits.

In fact, some of Williamson's movies have been successful enough to justify the making of sequels. In 1987, Williamson starred as renegade cop Robert Malone in the awful Cobra rip-off Death JourneyBlack Cobra, which was somehow successful enough to spawn two equally awful sequels during the next three years. Some time later, starting in 1997 and going on to 2002 were four "Dakota Smith" movies, where he played yet another tough cop going against the rules. But those aren't the only sequels that Williamson has been in. There are also the four "Jesse Crowder" movies. These four movies concern the exploits of an ex-cop who is now a troubleshooter, one that will do anything as long as the price is right. Death Journey is the first of the series, which I will be reviewing here right now. It was one of Williamson's first directorial efforts (he actually directed four movies in total the year this was made, so I can't be sure if it was the absolute first.) Death Journey starts off in New York City, where the local district attorney and the F.B.I. are struggling to convict mob boss Jack Rosewald. Two of their witnesses were assassinated just before the opening credits, and the only witness left is a man named Findley, a former accountant for Rosewald who now lives in Los Angeles. And the judge on the case has given the D.A. and the F.B.I. 48 hours to get Findley to New York or the case will be dismissed. They decide (for reasons never really explained) to hire troubleshooter Jesse Crowder to escort Findley to New York. Jesse is only happy to do it after being promised $25,000 on delivery. But not long after starting the journey with Findley from Los Angeles, Jesse finds out very quickly that the mob is determined to kill Findley, and Jesse also finds out he is just as much a target as Findley is. Jesse keeps changing the travel plans, but the mob is around every corner every step of the way. Can he make it with Findley to New York alive and on time?

Watching Death Journey, it soon becomes clear that Williamson was working with a budget significantly lower (make that very significantly - the budget was reportedly only $75,000) than the budgets of the major Hollywood studio films he had appeared in previous to this movie. Although this results in some of the problems I found in the movie, I must admit that despite the miniscule budget he managed to accomplish quite a few things, things even some higher budgeted movies didn't manage to do. Seeing the movie on its official and restored DVD release, for example, I saw that the photography for the most part was above average. The movie really looks darn good, especially in the outdoor sequences. Also, the compositions of the shots are nice as well. The movie was shot in Panavision (2.35 to 1), surprising for a low budget movie, and Williamson frequently shoots the action, characters, and scenery in a way that really takes advantage of the widescreen process, giving us something to look at from one end of the screen to the other. Also impressive about the movie is that despite having limited funds, Williamson manages to take the movie to a variety of locations. The end credits reveal that the movie was filmed in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Kansas City, and Palm Springs - among other places. I will admit that in some of these locations, Williamson shot just a few minutes of footage so that at those certain places the movie doesn't hang around very long. But the fact that Williamson didn't take the easy way out and use stock footage and took the long hard route to actually film in many different locations (even for just a few minutes) is impressive.

However, I am not saying that all of the movie is as well-made as those factors I listed above. When you are working with only $75,000, you are bound to slip up or make desperate compromises somewhere along the way. And Death Journey happens to have plenty such moments during its eighty two minute running time. The first witness who is killed is shown in the first few seconds by zooming into an extreme close-up of a car which immediately explodes. We don't see who got into the car. In the next scene, when the second witness is killed, we do get to see him, but we also see that there is so much padding under his shirt that you'll think, "He's going to get shotgunned!" seconds before his chest blows up in a mess of fabric and blood. As the movie goes on, the low budget results in stuff like dialogue dubbed in when characters are off-screen or too far away to see lip movements, Jesse killing people out of camera range (though we do get to hear "Ugh!" from one off-camera victim when Jesse shoots him so that we know he's killed), and the boom mike shadow being visible at least once. Surprisingly, there are a few scenes, like when Jesse and Findley take shelter in a woman's hotel room for several hours, that don't seem to have any point unless you want to see Findley eat several chocolate bars and Jesse having (offscreen) sex with the woman. If these scenes were eliminated, maybe Williamson would have had the money to properly shoot all that missing stuff. But as it is now, when Jesse throws a hairdryer into a bath that just seconds earlier had a hitman thrown in it, you've got to figure out that the hitman is subsequently electrocuted since you never see the hairdryer clearly or it actually plunging into the bathwater.

You are probably thinking by now that I disliked Death Journey overall and I'm going to continue listing its flaws in this paragraph. But I didn't dislike the movie - I actually had a lot of fun watching it. Yes, the movie is full of flaws like those, but I actually found these flaws to be amusing. The movie is so ambitious, yet has such limited resources as well as basic smarts at times, that you have to admire its spirit, for going on even when the flaws make the movie come across as completely ridiculous. Taking a bus from Palm Springs to Kansas City and reaching the destination in the same day? Hilarious. Amazingly bad choreographed karate fights? A gas. Williamson wearing a completely unbuttoned shirt for most of the movie in order to show off his torso? Well, it's stuff like that that makes unintentionally hilarious movies so fun to watch. Except for the occasional dull moment (like that hotel room sequence or the bogged-down off-road desert car chase sequence), the movie comes up with a steady supply of material that's unintentionally funny yet charming almost right to the very end. (Both the resolution to the central conflict, as well as the concluding sequence, are very unsatisfying.) I think that what really makes the movie special up to that point, though, is Williamson. You may laugh at stuff like his unbuttoned shirt, but even then he simply oozes charisma. Watching him, you can imagine that he's thinking, "This is my film, and I am going to do it my way. And you are going to like it." And I did. Sure, you may think many times that what he does in front of or behind the camera is laughable. But he made a movie, and you didn't. With that in mind, and seeing him bed down countless women when not involved in gunplay or fisticuffs, you'll be thinking gee, I wish I could be in his shoes.

(Posted May 25, 2014)

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See also: The Black Godfather, Chance, Outlaw Force