Pitting a karate school against the mob, Black Belt Jones is the classic tale of the big guy bullying the little guy, all in the name of greed. In this case, it's the mob forcing their lower-level "associates," Pinky and his gang of thugs, to push out a local karate school so they can profit off a future land redevelopment. When Pinky and his boys go a little too far with their pushing and the karate school's owner is accidentally killed, one time student turned government agent, Black Belt Jones gets involved. And boy is he someone that you do not want to get involved with. Unless you're a lady, that is.
Taking full advantage of the popularity of Blaxploitation movies, as well as the boom in Martial Art's films, 1974's Black Belt Jones is a culmination of its own era's popular genre cinema. The film stars the great Jim "the Dragon" Kelly, who, hot off of 1973's Enter the Dragon, was the perfect person to center a film that would take from both the popularity of Enter the Dragon, as well as his own character in that film, Williams, who was a representation of Blaxploitation cinema meant to reach a larger demographic. So, there you have it, the circle of cinematic life thanks to Black Belt Jones and Enter the Dragon.
Black Belt Jones' connection to Enter the Dragon goes further as both films share the same director, Robert Clouse, who, besides directing both Kelly and Bruce Lee, has also directed Jackie Chan in The Big Brawl, and even the first few Cynthia Rothrock China O'Brien films. So he certainly has some solid action genre cred under his (black) belt, but I wouldn't say that Black Belt Jones is anything to marvel at on a serious action level. It's all pretty standard over-the-top stuff that places a much larger focus on fun than it does realistic hard-hitting action.
There's a certain charm filled swagger that Black Belt Jones carries, which comes from the character, as well as the film and how it presents itself. It's very light and goofy and avoids some of the darker trappings that would be found in many Blaxploitation films. The racism level in the movie is very low, to the point where even the police officers seem to be smitten by just how cool Jones is, as opposed to being of the oppressive variety. Even the incredibly stereotypical Italian mobsters, who are the film's main antagonists, are silly (outside of the intimidating Mel Novak) in an almost parodic way. I love me a dark grimy Exploitation film, but it's nice to have one that isn't just mean spirited for the sake of exploitation.
What makes Black Belt Jones such an enjoyable ride is how much fun everyone seems to be having in the film. The interactions between certain characters are quite delightful and a lot of that has to do with Kelly's presence. He has such a great look, with that huge afro standing on top of his tall, lanky frame with that sullen look on his face. A sullen look that, in a heartbeat, can switch to the most natural and charismatic of smiles. He might not be the best actor on the block, but he can do what needs to be done physically, he has charm and, most importantly, a great presence.
Some might point to the movie as being a "so bad it's good" type of film, but I believe that people confuse the purposeful humor with cheese-lathered incompetence. Black Belt Jones is exactly what it was meant to be, fun. Black Belt Jones is supposed to be a good time, and it shows in scenes where the karate school students (in complete karate gi uniform, of course) are seen doing synchronized martial art's moves at a funeral. Or, having Gloria Hendry run around open handed karate chopping bad dudes, yelling HI-YA!, like it's no one's business. Moreover, how serious is any film trying to be when they cast Scatman Crothers as a karate master?!
Black Belt Jones is a film that, in a way, has an innocence about it and could play perfectly to most any crowd that's open to having a good time. In that sense, it reminds me a lot of 1985's The Last Dragon with its tone, its sense of humor, and comic book feel. Not to say that Black Belt Jones is as wonderful as The Last Dragon, but it hits the right notes and stands on its own as a different type of Blaxploitation film. From the moment Dennis Coffey's wonderful main theme song funks up your ear drums; down to the bubble bath final fight at the carwash, you are sure to be smiling throughout much of Black Belt Jones.