Three The Hard Way

Director: Gordon Parks Jr.  
Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Jim Kelly

The technique of capturing something on film and being able to play back multiple times what was photographed has existed for over a hundred years. And for almost all of the time that this miracle has existed, there have been people who have been trying to cash in on that miracle. And sometimes these people have taken extreme measures to make sure that they get a return on their investment. It's no wonder - movie making is more often than not a costly exercise. The idea of a big budget flop has existed for decades, including during the silent era with such big money losers as Noah's Ark and D. W. Griffith's Intolerance. It's interesting to look at all the things movie producers have done over the years to make their product look enticing to audiences. In recent decades, the technique producers use more often than not to try and get people to come to their movies is the television commercial. It seems that every big release comes with hundreds of commercials on television. No wonder - it works. (Curiously, it was not always this way. Years ago someone I knew who grew up in the fifties told me that way back then most people thought that a movie was most likely not to be good if it relied on using commercials on television.) Another way producers have tried to make their product more tantalizing is with gimmicks. Some gimmicks eventually became standards, like Technicolor or stereo sound. Though there have been more gimmicks that didn't last long, such as Smell-O-Vision or subliminal images placed in various parts of the movie in question.

Another thing that producers have exploited in order to promote their movie are the actors that appear in the movies. Usually when a contract is signed, it requires the actors to go on the road to promote the movies on talk shows and venues where people from various media outlets can interview the stars. I question how effective these things are, because the interviewers rarely ask hard-hitting questions; no one asks Cuba Gooding Jr., "Why have almost all your recent movies been released direct to DVD?" But stars frequently do make a movie more interesting than one that is filled with people you have not heard of. It's possible, therefore, that you may have wondered why so many modern movies just have one or two stars you have heard of. Logic states that a movie packed with famous people would be more attractive to an audience. But when you think about it a little more, there are obvious problems in getting an all-star cast in a movie these days. There isn't a studio system anymore, for one thing. In the old days, the studios had dozens of stars under contract, and could force them to appear in any old movie project, including those with other stars. Another problem is with the salaries many stars nowadays get for a movie. With many of the top stars commanding multi-million dollar salaries for each movie, having a movie with an all-star cast can be very costly. Another problem with the idea of casting multiple stars in a modern day movie is the rivalry actors sometimes have with each other. Years ago, I read an interview with a famous action star where he was asked why as of that date he had not made a movie with a certain other famous action star. He responded by saying that he and the other star had an ego problem, with each of them fearing that the other would steal the show if they were in a movie together.

Still, over the past few decades we have occasionally gotten a movie with an impossible-to-beat cast. For example, there are the three movies in The Expendables series, though many of the stars in that movie didn't command such a high salary at the time. And while I am thinking in a Three The Hard Waycynical way, it's probably the same reason why the makers of Three The Hard Way were able to get the unbeatable cast in their movie - Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, and Jim Kelly. It was the blaxploitation era, and while African-American actors had gotten their foot in the door, they still weren't considered "A" list actors for the most part. This contempt may also explain why this movie for a long time was obscure. It was near-impossible to find on video cassette, and it was finally (and quietly) released on DVD only a few years ago. And not fully intact, I should add - reports I read during my pre-viewing research stated that at least one of the songs on the soundtrack was edited out for the DVD release. That news kind of soured me, but I decided to give the movie a chance, not just because of the cast, but because of its crazy premise. What it exactly is I won't reveal in this review, though I will say that it is a plan hatched by a white supremacist leader by the name of Monroe Feather (Jay Robinson, I Wonder Who's Killing Her Now?), who is assisted by one Doctor Fortero (Richard Angarola, Black Moon Rising). The plan in part involves kidnapping various African-Americans off the street and subjecting them to various experiments, experiments that more often than not prove deadly for the kidnap victims. But the secrecy of the scheme and its kidnappings starts to go awry when one kidnapped African-American by the name of House (Junero Jennings, Trackdown) escapes, and despite being wounded during his escape manages to reach his musician friend Jimmy (Brown, Slaughter). After getting barely enough time to tell Jimmy that something bad is brewing for the citizens of the African-American community, House is killed by Feather's followers, who then in short order kidnap Jimmy's girlfriend. Jimmy doesn't take all of this very well, so he contacts his buddies Jagger (Williamson, The Inglorious Bastards) and Keyes (Kelly, Black Belt Jones), and after a lengthy investigation they ultimately resolve to stop Feather's scheme and bring down him and his many white supremacist followers.

There's no doubt about it - a movie that brings in Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, and Jim Kelly in its cast automatically has a good deal of interest around it. After all, they were among the biggest blaxploitation stars of the era. However, the first question that comes immediately to mind, at least for me, is if these three actors brought anything to the movie besides simply showing up. As it turns out, that is not always the case. I'll first start with Jim Brown. Although I've enjoyed some of his other movies, I have never thought of him as a strong actor. I admit that in this movie he does exude a good amount of charisma, like in many of his other movies, but when it comes to showing great emotion he mostly blows it. When he first comes across the wounded House, for example, he shows no great feelings of surprise or shock. He seems to be on a bland kind of autopilot for the majority of the movie. Then there is Jim Kelly. Like Brown, he also has an air around him that makes him magnetic towards the viewer. However, while I was drawn to look at him, I didn't enjoy everything I saw about him. Although his performance is neither awful nor grating, it simply isn't memorable - thinking about it now, as well as consulting my notes, I still can't describe his performance properly. As for Fred Williamson, fortunately he manages to greatly compensate for his co-stars' weak performances. Like them, he also has charisma, but at the same time you see that he's really working hard to make his character more colorful than that. He seems to be having a great deal of fun, whether he's squeezing a lady or firing a machine gun at whitey, and there's a great deal of enjoyment to be had by simply watching him do his thing. You have to wait almost a half hour before he finally shows up, but once he does, he livens up the rest of the movie greatly.

While Brown and Kelly may be mostly weak in their performances, when they are together with Williamson some genuine chemistry is formed all the same. All three actors seem very comfortable working with each other, and the camaraderie they have for each other is felt by the audience. There is another performance in the movie besides Williamson that adds sparkle to the movie, being the one from Jay Robinson, playing the white supremacist leader. He seems to know the exact note that he should play his character. On one hand, he does show the character to be a cold-hearted bastard that you hope greatly gets what is coming to him. But Robinson seems to know that being too evil would sour the mood greatly, so he almost puts a giggle into his nasty declarations. He's evil, but he's also a lot of fun to watch since he's almost silly at times, and it's a little disappointing that he only gets a few scenes to show his stuff; a movie like this not only needs a villain as strong as him, but needs such a villain to appear on a regular basis. I'm not sure if Robinson was directed to act this way by director Gordon Parks. Jr. (who earlier directed Super Fly), but Parks certainly didn't discourage it. Though credit for who decided on the Robinson performance may be a question, there's a lot in Three The Hard Way that can be credited without question to Parks. Parks not only chooses a number of interesting locations (New York, Chicago, Washington D.C.) to shoot on, but he often uses some interesting camera angles that get the audience alert and paying attention, since there is the promise that you won't be seeing the same old thing once again.

Another way Parks keeps things lively for the audience is with the action sequences, which are generally well done. The low budget for this movie may have actually been a blessing for the action sequences since they often come across as a little rough and sloppy. The rough treatment makes the action sequences not come across as slickly choreographed, and it makes these scenes feel more convincing than many action scenes from other movies. There's genuine excitement coming from these scenes. While Parks does do well with the action and locations, and keeps things moving without one dull moment in the ninety minute running time, there's one thing that seemingly he was powerless to deal with properly, and that is with the shortcomings of the script. There are a number of script flaws that should have been fixed before shooting started. It's never really explained, for example, why House after escaping does not immediately go to the cops, or even informs the cops after getting to the hospital. (The most plausible explanation is that the movie would end not long after starting.) Speaking of the cops, there is one policeman played by Alex Rocco (Bonnie's Kids) who appears a couple of times wanting explanations from Brown's character. Rocco's character ends up not impacting the story the least bit; he could have easily been edited out with no harm to the rest of the movie. Also, when the trio find out the names and location of the white supremacists with the still-secret scheme, what do they do? No, they don't immediately raid the white supremacists' compound. Instead, they just split up, and it's only by luck by one of them that they subsequently learn what the actual scheme is and where it will be executed. Such script problems didn't prevent me from overall enjoying Three The Hard Way. But at the same time, thinking about the script flaws and other problems of the movie, I couldn't help but think that a movie uniting three of the biggest blaxploitation stars of the 1970s should have been a lot better than merely good.

(Posted October 22, 2014)

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See also: The Big Score, Chance, Foxforce