Cleopatra Jones

1973, Movie, PG, 89 mins

Review

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A fairly tame, fairly lame blaxploitation footnote, starring drop-dead gorgeous Tamara Dobson and her improbable wardrobe.

After blowing up a $30 million field of opium poppies in Turkey, government agent Cleopatra Jones (Tamara Dobson) returns to the US when her pet charity, a drug rehabilitation center in Los Angeles, is raided by the police and one of its residents busted for heroin possession. The raid was actually engineered by lesbian drug-lord Mommy (Shelley Winters), owner of the destroyed poppy fields, in order to bring Cleo back and kill her.

Mommy has additional troubles from one of her distributors, Doodlebug (Antonio Fargas), a renegade who breaks with her organization to go solo. Mommy's thugs, when they're not trying (and failing) to kill Cleo, manage to wipe out Doodlebug and his bodyguards; however Doodlebug's girlfriend escapes. Cleo tracks down the girlfriend, but the two are immediately captured by a traitorous cop--the one who planted the heroin in the halfway house--and delivered to Mommy in a junkyard. Just as the pair are about to be dropped into a car-crusher, Cleo's friends arrive and save them. The criminals are killed or captured and Cleo throws Mommy to her death.

Thoroughly routine in execution, the film features weak fights and a by-the-numbers car chase. If it weren't for the obscenity and racial epithets ("Oh you sweet pickaninny," Mommy spouts on first meeting Cleo face-to-face), the relatively lightweight film could almost be a 1970s movie-of-the-week. Shelley Winters lends the film a slight degree of campy charm with her shrieking, shrewish portrayal of Mommy (her lesbianism a matter of innocuous allusions and a pinch on the butt), in a cast bolstered by dependable character actors (Dan Frazer, Esther Rolle, Bernie Casey), chief among them the ever-enjoyable blaxploitation favorite Antonio Fargas.

Drug-dealing Doodlebug's oh-so-proper white British chauffeur ("Very good, sir. Will there be anything else, Mr. Doodlebug?") is indicative of the film's lowbrow mindset. Cleo herself, a sort of cross between James Bond and a Vegas showgirl, is first seen stepping out of a helicopter into the Turkish heat, wearing a hooded cape and furs. Later costumes are equally outrageous, offering a bit of unintentional humor when Mommy's hitmen, trailing a virtually neon-clad Cleo off the plane, manage to lose her in a tiny gray crowd.

Tamara Dobson was one of several contenders to Pam Grier's crown as queen of blaxploitation. A fashion model who previously played small roles in FUZZ and COME BACK CHARLESTON BLUE (both 1972), she had her 15 minutes of fame with CLEOPATRA JONES and its sequel, working only infrequently thereafter. Co-writer, co-producer Max Julien, who originated the concept of Cleo, had acted for director Richard Rush in a number of pictures for AIP and elsewhere (PSYCH-OUT, SAVAGE SEVEN, GETTING STRAIGHT), as well as in the proto-blaxploitation UPTIGHT (1968) for Jules Dassin. But his lasting claim to fame would forever be as the pimp Goldie in THE MACK (1973). (Violence, profanity.) leave a comment

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