With A History Of Violence, Tom Breihan picks the most important action movie of every year, starting with the genre’s birth and moving right up to whatever Vin Diesel’s doing this very minute.
A weird thing about the blaxploitation wave of the ’70s: The soundtrack albums, most of the time, were richer, more imaginative, and generally better than the movies themselves. They had higher production values, too. This was the moment when movie studios and small-time entrepreneurs discovered the ticket-buying power of the black audience happened to overlap with a great era for soul music, when all these geniuses were pushing their sounds into funky, expansive, orchestral realms. And so these towering figures—Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Bobby Womack—were giving some of their best music to no-budget B-movies. Coffy has a great, iconic central performance from Pam Grier, but it’s about as choppy and rough as studio movies get. So it’s fascinating to think about someone like Roy Ayers making a lush soul-funk odyssey to accompany it. If D’Angelo did the score for a straight-to-DVD underground-fighting-tournament movie, that would be pretty weird, but the rough equivalent was happening all the time in the ’70s.
That wasn’t an issue for Dolemite. Dolemite had no budget for music or for anything else. The 1975 opus was an utterly DIY independent affair, but it was less passion project and more branding opportunity. The stand-up comic Rudy Ray Moore had carved out a name for himself with X-rated, rhyme-heavy party records, and he’d introduced the Dolemite character on his very first album, 1970’s Eat Out More Often. (Supposedly, he’d built the routine and the character after hearing a homeless man’s toast about a mythic street figure with the same name.) And Dolemite the movie is built completely as a vehicle for Dolemite the character. Moore was going to create the baddest cinematic motherfucker that he possibly could, and he was going to do it on as little money as possible.
The music of Dolemite is nothing special, especially in the context of the era; it’s serviceable blaxploitation funk from unknowns like Ben Taylor. There are a few club scenes with musicians performing and their lip-syncing is way off. But the movie really works as its own soundtrack. Moore wasn’t a musician, exactly, but his specialty was rambling, cuss-heavy toasts and long parables about slick underdogs getting over on their oppressors—or, in the case of the Signifying Monkey, not quite making it. He tells a couple of those stories in the movie, and it’s the moments when Moore really starts performing that the movie comes to life.
When Moore is actually acting, though, he’s just barely getting his lines out. Moore wasn’t an actor; Dolemite was his first movie. And to be fair, almost nobody in the cast was an actor. Jerry Jones, who plays Dolemite’s good-cop ally and who also wrote the screenplay, had a few bit parts in movies and on TV shows. Director D’Urville Martin, who also played the villain Willie Green, had briefly been in movies like Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and Rosemary’s Baby. This was his first time directing, and it’s tough to imagine that he, or anyone else associated with Dolemite, had ever had anything to do with a legit Hollywood movie. Dolemite doesn’t just break cinematic rules. It’s completely oblivious to them, like they never existed.
Dolemite is not, strictly speaking, a good movie. There are long pauses in the dialogue, like the actors aren’t sure who’s supposed to speak next. They talk over each other sometimes. The boom mic makes appearances, and it doesn’t just dip into the frame; it hangs there, suspended, for minutes at a time. The plot seems to work on its own alien logic. The movie opens with Dolemite being released from prison. The warden is letting him out so that he can prove his own innocence, which seems unorthodox. And given that Dolemite literally murders four people on the drive home from jail, it seems like it probably wasn’t the best plan. (They were all trying to kill him, but still.)
And yet Dolemite is also great, and for many of the same reasons that it’s bad. Take, for instance, that scene where Dolemite gets out of jail. A car full of women picks him up, gathering around him and helping him take his shitty suit off before he gets in the car. One of them has brought him cotton drawers, and he cusses her out; he does not wear cotton drawers. Prisoners gather in the yard, and appalled, envious guards look on. Dolemite throws his old suit at one of the guards, tells him to wipe his ass with it, and the guard can only respond with a sniveling, “Awww, you’ll be back.” Pretty soon, Dolemite is in a powder-blue suit with an enormous bow tie, and he’s making out with two women at once in the car. And then he’s killing some guys with a machine gun. And laughing about it.
There’s a beautiful audacity to Dolemite. It’s willing to overlook any sense or decorum just in order to make Rudy Ray Moore look like the coolest person imaginable. He runs a nightclub, and all the women who worked for him have turned to prostitution while he’s been gone just to make sure he doesn’t go broke. They’ve also learned kung fu, which comes in handy when he gets his club back and his enemies try to crash his big party. When two cops try to hassle Dolemite by planting drugs on him—just, I guess, to prove that they can, since they never arrest him or anything—he beats both of them up, dumps their cocaine all over them, and informs them: “That’s for fucking with me, you no-business, born-insecure fuckers!” He is a true artist of the cuss word. More than once, he calls someone a “rat soup-eating motherfucker,” and he usually yells the “fucker” part of “motherfucker” really loudly. (My favorite line, though, might actually belong to the shuffling-junkie character Creeper: “I’m so bad I kick my own ass twice a day.”)
Most of the best blaxploitation movies aren’t really action movies. Shaft is a detective movie, while Black Caesar is an old-school crime story in the White Heat mold. Cotton Comes To Harlem is pointed, aware satire. And maybe Dolemite is more of a ribald comedy than anything else, but it really tries to be an action movie, too. There are shoot-outs and fistfights. Moore and Martin brought in a couple of local martial arts experts to stage the big club-fight set piece—though, watching the movie, you quickly lose track of who’s fighting on which side and why. And Moore himself tries some martial arts, though he really barely moves and his kicks sometimes miss by at least a foot. Near the end of the movie, he literally rips Willie Green’s heart out of his chest.
There was, of course, a social context for all of this. It was the immediate post-Jim Crow era, when white America was still openly struggling with the idea that maybe it should treat black people like human beings. You can see why a foul-mouthed, murderous, fly-dressing, karate-chopping ladies’ man would’ve resonated as a hero to some audiences, even if the movie built around him didn’t even try to hold together. Moore made a screen career for himself with Dolemite; the sequel The Human Tornado and vehicles like Petey Wheatstraw and Disco Godfather followed soon after. Moreover, Dolemite showed that you didn’t need budget or filmmaking chops to make something enduring. You just had to be willing to show the audience whatever it wanted to see.
A couple of decades later, Master P built a regional rap empire largely on the back of I’m Bout It, a straight-to-video crime movie that might be, strictly speaking, an even worse movie than Dolemite. And in a weird way, the no-budget gonzo spirit of Dolemite prefigured a movie like Mad Max. Dolemite became a part of the culture in ways that most movies with exponentially higher budgets will never match, and it remains way more watchable than it should logically be.
Other notable 1975 action movies: Three Days Of The Condor is rightly remembered as one of the great paranoid thrillers of the ’70s, but it’s also a great example of a classic action-movie trope: The ordinary guy who suddenly finds himself way over his head in a situation he doesn’t understand, who has to use his guts and his cunning to survive. On that level, it’s not that different from Die Hard, and that’s why it’s 1975’s runner-up.
In the Sam Peckinpah filmography, Killer Elite is one of the lesser efforts. But it does have James Caan and Paulie from Rocky fighting ninjas, so that’s something. Death Race 2000 and Rollerball are both futuristic, dystopian blood-sport movies. Of the two of them, Death Race holds up way better, because it’s less conflicted about being a proto-Troma exploitation movie and because it’s got Sylvester Stallone as a smooth, urbane villain. Mostly because of its breathtaking stunts, White Line Fever is a worthy entry into the canon of truck-driver car-chase movies, even if it does have a deeply obnoxious lead performance from Jan-Michael Vincent holding it back. The Eiger Sanction was basically Clint Eastwood’s version of Cliffhanger, 18 years before Stallone’s. And then there’s The Man From Hong Kong, an Australian obscurity well worth seeking out. It’s got the kung fu pioneer and The Chinese Boxer auteur Jimmy Wang Yu throwing the former Bond George Lazenby into his own fireplace, and that might be one of its more sedate moments.
Next time: John Carpenter turns gang members into zombies and revitalizes the siege movie with Assault On Precinct 13.