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Film / Cleopatra Jones

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Cleopatra Jones is a 1973 Blaxploitation film.

Tamara Dobson plays the eponymous Jones, a 'Special Agent to the President', whose mission is the destruction of the drug trade in America. Statuesque, cultured, lethal, Jones keeps tabs on her home community while carrying the fight around the world. After destroying a field of poppies in Turkey with an estimated street value of $30 million (about $160 million in 2015) by a napalm strike, Jones earns the ire of "Mommy" (Shelley Winters), a domineering butch lesbian drug kingpin who operates in Cleo's hometown of L.A. Intent to draw Cleopatra into a death trap, Mommy orders a shakedown on the B&S House - a community clinic where junkies can get clean, founded and run by Jones' lover Reuben Masters (Bernie Casey). When the shakedown uncovers drugs and Jimmy Beeker, one of the ex-junkies, is arrested, Jones returns to set things right.

After stopping an assassination attempt at her airport arrival, Jones meets with the local police chief and orders him to have the DA back off the prosecution for 72 hours while she investigates. He agrees; both are (rightly) concerned that the conviction might spark rioting; this is underscored when Cleo visits the B&S house and witnesses the clientele cleaning firearms and making Molotov Cocktails.

Meanwhile, when word gets out that Cleopatra Jones is returning, Doodlebug Simpkins (Antonio Fargas), one of Mommy's drug distributors, decides to quit and go independent, keeping all the drug proceeds for himself - instead of the "85/15...expenses from the 15" deal he has with Mommy. He refuses her offer of 25%, and warns her that any threats against him will be met with lethal force.

Cleo, Masters, and Chief Crawford know that if Jimmy goes to jail, B&S will be shut down and the community will riot. Cleo, looking for the corrupt cops who ordered the raid, confronts Doodlebug, who tells her he no longer works for Mommy, simultaneously giving her up and introducing Jones to his girlfriend Tiffany, a lounge singer.

Cleo wants the drugs out of her community. Doodlebug wants Cleo out of his business. Mommy wants them both dead. Someone's getting disappointed!

Definitely a product of its time, Cleopatra Jones has aged fairly well; the dialogue tends to be natural and is quite snappy in parts while the Jive Turkey bits are few and far between. The acting can be uneven in parts - compare Jimmy's Narmtastic confession to Masters' stonefaced comfort during a junkie's torturous withdrawal session. Some of the comments made by minor characters feel like performances by non-actors. Race relations - always a focus in the blaxploitation genre - are fairly positive: a motorcycle rally shows blacks, white, and hispanics competing equally; background events have mixed crowds interacting normally. One event does show a group of (black) kids harassing a (white) man, but it's not easy to tell if the man was trying to steal their ball or if the kids just decided to screw with him.

Followed in 1975 by Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (set in Hong Kong), a co-production with Shaw Brothers.

Tropes present in Cleopatra Jones

  • Action Girl: Cleopatra Jones was one of the first female action heroes on film. The trailer pitches her as "the soul sister's answer to James Bond".
  • Afro Asskicker: Cleopatra is clearly established as the best fighter in the movie, and she has a pretty sizable afro (though it's often kept under a scarf). The Johnson brothers have smaller afros and kick a fair bit of ass as well, being martial arts instructors.
  • And That's Terrible: Our Establishing Character Moment for Ruben and the B&S House has him telling his colleagues that two ten year-old kids O.D.-ed last night, "and that's some heavy stuff."
  • Artistic License Martial Arts: Master Bong Soo Han, a 9th Dan Blackbelt in Hap Ki Do, was the Martial Arts advisor for this film. It only shows in one or two scenes near the climax (the classic wristlock-spin-opponent flips 270 degrees onto his back); the rest is "judo chops" and curved-legged kicks so bad that even the editing can't make it look believable.
  • Bad Boss: Mommy, the main villain, is introduced screaming at her male henchmen, groping her female underlings, and later even executing one of the hitmen because he failed her. This is in contrast to Doodlebug, who is merely a Mean Boss.
  • By-the-Book Cop: Captain Lou Crawford wants Cleopatra to know that he had nothing to do with the raid on the rehab clinic. Sergeant Kert is reluctantly drawn into the raid, and has to hold back Officer Purdy's Rabid Cop tendencies.
  • But Now I Must Go: At the end, Cleo has to leave town for another mission, and she tells Ruben that she'll never really be able to rest until the streets are safe from drugs.
  • Chewing the Scenery: Snake, the dealer, when confronted by Cleo. Also counts as a One-Scene Wonder.
  • Cool Car: Black and silver Corvette Stingray with mag wheels, an automated hatch roof to keep tall people from breaking their necks getting in and out, a cassette player (~$200 in 2015 dollars) and a mobile phone (~$890 in 2015 dollars) plus a gun storage rack in the passenger-side door. In one scene, a group of kids gather around her parked car to admire it, and are particularly impressed by the mag wheels and carphone.
  • Depraved Homosexual: Mommy is shown with a different, provocatively dressed female during each scene in her home; she leers at each and grabs one's ass.
  • Dirty Cop: Officer Purdy is not only a Bigot with a Badge but is also selling police-confiscated weapons to drug dealers. Sergeant Kert turns out to be a crook, too, and on Mommy's payroll.
  • Do Not Attempt: Some of the stunts - especially when people are dodging cars - look quite close even for stuntmen and forced perspective.
  • Down L.A. Drain: A car chase between Cleo and some of Mommy's goons inevitably passes through here.
  • Drugs Are Bad: Snake tells Cleo he's only been peddling the "light shit" lately. Cleo insists that there's no such thing.
  • "Everybody Laughs" Ending: At the end of the movie, all of Cleo's friends have gathered to say goodbye to her as she leaves on another assignment. They all flash an upraised fist and say "Right on!" Cpt. Crawford, the only white person present, awkwardly duplicates the gesture, much to the amusement of everyone else. The credits roll over a freeze frame of Crawford looking slightly embarrassed.
  • Fat Bastard: Mommy, the main villain, is often referred to as fat, although she's not that big.
  • Genre Blending: This was the first blaxploitation film to include elements of the Martial Arts Movie. One month later, Enter the Dragon came out - a Martial Arts Movie with elements of blaxploitation. This lead to a little wave of blaxploitation movies about martial arts.
  • Guns Do Not Work That Way: There is an Instant Death Bullet early on but otherwise these are avoided. One case of Guns Akimbo Doodlebug's Last Stand was due to the victim knowing it was an ambush, plus he was dazed by a car crash. The clever assailants shoot the victim till he stops moving, then one investigates with a gun ready while other goons provide overwatch in case he's playing possum. The other time (also an ambush) Cleo uses it to create covering fire to protect an injured Masters and get close enough to the Cool Car to get a better weapon. She selects a Mac-10 and rushes the building the shooters were on top of. She enters and avoids an old man pushing an old woman in a wheelchair just as they are leaving. All three turn with weapons drawn, but of course the bad guys are too slow. Although both assassins are killed, it is easy to assume that each took several hits.
  • Ironic Echo: Purdy gloatingly recites Jimmy's Miranda Rights to him as he's arresting him on a fake drug charge at the beginning of the movie. Later on, when Purdy finally goes down, another cop can be seen reading him his rights.
  • The Jeeves: Mattingly, the English chauffeur employed by Doodlebug. Doodlebug and his bodyguards find him utterly hilarious.
  • Mean Boss: Doodlebug is extremely sarcastic and rude to everyone who works for him. Mommy takes it a step further.
  • The Mole: Sgt. Kert, the otherwise even-tempered police officer who works for Chief Crawford, is Mommy's catspaw on the force and orders the shakedown of the B&S. He also follows Cleo as she tracks down Tiffany after Doodlebug is killed, then captures them and turns them over to Mommy. His appearance is something of a Wham Line as there is no reason to suspect there even is a mole.
  • Non-Action Guy: Ruben, Cleo's boyfriend, generally sits out the action scenes.
  • Non-Action Big Bad: Mommy, being a stout middle-aged woman, is not exactly on Cleo's level physically.
  • Only a Flesh Wound - Averted; Masters is clipped during one assassination attempt and stays down while Cleopatra returns fire; later he is shown bandaged with his arm in a sling, resting.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: A staple of blaxploitation films. Officer Purdy, of course, is a borderline-psychotic Bigot with a Badge, while in Mommy's case it's more incidental, with her Establishing Character Moment having her go on a racist tirade against Cleo for burning the poppy fields in Turkey during the movie's prologue. Doodlebug is also shown to be a sexist in the way he treats Tiffany, and one comment implies it might be an abusive relationship.
  • Pretty in Mink: Both Cleopatra and Mommy wear some furs, showing at least both like to show off some style.
  • Rabid Cop: During the raid on the rehab clinic at the beginning, Officer Purdy has to be almost physically restrained from shooting Jimmy.
  • Seinfeldian Conversation: The movie is full of lengthy, comedic scenes of characters just talking about whatever. A good example is the scene of the Johnson brothers tailing Officer Purdy, and Melvin trying to convince Matthew to loan him money so he can go buy something to eat. The exchange goes on for several minutes and adds nothing to the plot, but it's pretty funny.
  • Selective Magnetism: At the climax, several mooks are disarmed at once by a crane mounted scrap magnet; this allows the unarmed ex-junkies and the Johnson brothers to overwhelm them.
  • Statuesque Stunner: Jones' ID lists her as 5'10", but Dobson was actually 6'2", and the movie's poster advertised her as "six feet 2" of dynamite". Combined with Antonio Fargas' 6'1" and Bernie Casey's 6'4", co-star Brenda Sykes is positively waifish at 5'5". Additionally, Jones has trouble walking away from men without inspiring conversations about her looks.
  • Tempting Fate: When Doodlebug tells Mommy he's quit and will kill anyone she sends after him. After Doodlebug has an evening out, Mommy's goons hire two wreckers to ram his limo, killing his driver and two gunmen. His girlfriend Tiffany flees while he takes his bodyguards' guns for a Last Stand; he is gunned down without landing a single hit.
  • Those Two Guys: The Johnson Brothers. Martial artists, snarky in the face of danger.
    Purdy: You'd better get out of my way, boy. <gestures with gun>
    Matthew <grins wolfishly>: Did he just call you Roy?
  • You Have Failed Me: At the climax, Mommy demonstrates her deathtrap for Cleo and Tiffany on one of her own hitmen, Tony.