Tuesday, May 17, 2011

"Ethereal material that's straight up classic": Gordon Parks Jr's Three the Hard Way (1974)

The exciting second feature from the very gifted and much-missed Gordon Parks Jr., Three the Hard Way (1974) is one of the great Blaxploitation films of the seventies. Featuring a towering cast, energetic stunt-work, impressive photography and energized direction, Three the Hard Way remains an exploitation fans dream; a hard-hitting quickly paced racehorse of a film that is another reminder of the greatness of Gordon Parks Jr., one of the seventies most under-appreciated icons.

Gordon Parks Jr. was riding high when he set out to follow-up his first groundbreaking feature, the mega-hit masterwork Super Fly (1972). He was also a filmmaker enflamed by much of the unjustified criticism thrown at him for supposedly celebrating negative stereotypes with his first influential film. With Three the Hard Way, Parks Jr. was on a mission to squash those who condemned his first film by producing a follow-up that would offer up three of the biggest stars of the day near Super-Hero roles that had more in common with James Bond than John Shaft.

The plot of Three the Hard Way introduces a new element to the Blaxploitation genre, namely science fiction. Parks Jr’s film concerns a militant group of nazi-like white supremacists who have come up with a water-based formula that will kill off America’s black population. The group make a fatal error though when they kill the buddy of Record Producer Jimmy Lait and kidnap his girlfriend. All hell breaks loose when Jimmy enlists two of his hard-hitting-friends, Jagger Daniels and Mister Keyes, and sets out to get his girl back and stop this new evil empire from blossoming.

Three the Hard Way is more than anything else a star vehicle for Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and Jim Kelly and Park’s Jr. was clearly well aware of this. Photography the three with the same bravado that Terence Young had captured Sean Connery in Thunderball (1965), Parks Jr. highlights his stars considerable ass-kicking charisma at every turn. Kelly’s introduction into the film (highlighted by a jaw-dropping karate kickdown that has to be seen to be believed) alone would make Three the Hard Way a Blaxploitation classic, but Brown and Williamson also deliver the goods throughout, especially Brown who was fresh off his bruising success as the unstoppable Slaughter.

Three the Hard Way also features a vibrant supporting cast including Shelia Frazier as Jimmy’s kidnapped lady, Alex Rocco as a police lt. and in a small role the incredible Roberta Collins. The real scene-stealers though are Pamela Serpe, Marie O’Henry and Irene Tsu, who play one of the strangest (and most fetching) torture squads in screen history.

While Three the Hard Way is very much a vehicle for Parks Jr’s impressive cast, that doesn’t stop him from offering up the same skillful and inventive direction that is seen in all of his work through Super Fly onto Thomasine and Bushrod and his final-feature Aaron Loves Angela. Like in his other works, Parks Jr’s startling trademarked still-photography sections are here to punctuate the thematic elements of the film, and his peerless street shooting (helped wonderfully here by the dazzling work of cinematographer Lucien Ballard) is simply astonishing. Park’s Jr. was a force to be reckoned with behind the camera and Three the Hard Way is another fine example of a clear auteur at work.

Despite the greatness of the cast and the direction, perhaps the real star of Three the Hard Way is stunt coordinator Hal Needham, who was just a few years away from coming to fame as a director himself, with the extraordinary and uber-succesful Smokey and the Bandit (1977). Needham’s work here for Parks Jr. is incredible to say the least, and his bold decision to include all three of the stars within the stunts is genius and gives Three the Hard Way a real visceral punch lacking from many action movies before of since. The success of the film can finally be credited to Parks Jr’s exquisite shot choices, Needham’s stunt coordination and editor Robert Swink’s inspired cutting…not to mention the onscreen characterizations of three of seventies greatest stars in their absolute prime.

Three the Hard Way, and its soundtrack from Curtis Mayfield’s backing group The Impressions, was a big hit when it played to thrilled audiences in 1974. Unlike Thomasine and Bushrod and Aaron Loves Angela it didn’t slip under the radar and it quickly become known as one of the essential works of the new Black Cinema. Despite this, Three the Hard Way was only just released on DVD this past year, after being out of print on home video since a VHS release in the eighties. The DVD (part of the Urban Action Collection where it is matched up with Black Samson, Hot Potato and Black Belt Jones) features a sharp looking widescreen print of the film but no extras. Sadly the DVD is missing a sequence that runs about three minutes but all of the nudity and language are intact. The missing sequence (that should be between Kelly’s introduction and the car-wash shootout) is a jarring omission and it is truly unfortunate that Warner Brothers didn’t restore it for what is otherwise an essential DVD collection.

Three the Hard Way is Gordon Parks Jr’s most flat-out entertaining film. It perhaps isn’t as groundbreaking as Superfly, or as genre-bending as Thomasine and Bushrod, or as moving as Aaron Loves Angela but it’s an extremely exciting work and a great, great action film (which is exactly what Parks Jr. set out to make).

American cinema lost a true visionary when Gordon Parks Jr. was tragically killed in a plane crash less than five years after Three the Hard Way hit theaters. His four feature-length films stand as a vibrant tribute to his memorythough and are essential viewing for fans of American Cinema…to paraphrase a song The Beastie Boys Named after Three the Hard Way, Parks Jr certainly did ‘Rock the Motherfucker” and the stunning shock-waves can still be felt everytime one of his films is on.

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