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Too Busy Looking Gooood

July 2, 2013

I was saddened to hear that Jim Kelly, one of the iconic martial arts stars of the 1970s,  passed away last weekend at the relatively young age of 67.  Kelly, of course, was best known for playing the wise-cracking and impressively afro’d blaxploitation-stylee character Williams in Bruce Lee’s kung fu masterpiece Enter The Dragon.   Williams is unquestionably one of the most memorable characters from that classic, particularly as he got some of the best lines in the script.  That’s not saying much I suppose given there really wasn’t much of a script to start with, but Williams did deliver such bon mots as ‘Man, you come right out of a comic book’ and the quite simply brilliant verbal slapdown of the movies villain, ‘Bull-shit, Mr Han-Man.’ It might get him killed, but that’s beside the point.

Yeah, those quotes don’t seem anywhere near as bad-ass when they’re written down.  If you haven’t seen  film you’ll not really be able to appreciate their Jive Talkin’ brilliance.  That said if you haven’t seen that movie then you probably haven’t lived.

Unorthodox... but effective

Unorthodox… but effective

I do enjoy a good chop-socky movie, and like my unhealthy obsessions with giant Japanese monsters and terrifying horrors of the deep it’s something that stems from my childhood. I first saw Enter The Dragon when I was about nine or ten, thanks to the kid next door who had access to his dad’s pirate video collection.  I was a bit young for violent martial arts battles to the death you may think, but I’m pretty sure I’m not in danger of turning into a serial killer or anything so it doesn’t seem to have done me any lasting harm.  Maybe kids were just better adjusted in the 1980’s or something.

It turns out that the video shop in my hometown had the same lax attitude to the certifications issued by the British Board of Film Classification as my neighbour, and they didn’t seem to see any problems with lending a wide range of martial arts films to me and my brother on a Saturday afternoon.  So while my parents were out we indulged in a wide range of poorly dubbed stories of Shaolin monks avenging slain masters and so on.  Next we discovered the crazy capers of Jackie Chan, with the bicycle chase in Project A being a high point of his excellent repertoire.  Then came the inferior but still entertaining western efforts such as No Retreat, No Surrender, the American Ninja series and the early works of Jean-Claude Van Damme (Bloodsport being the pick of that bunch).

While there were some great films among that lot, Bruce Lee’s stuff was by far my favourite (with the exception of the bizarre American cut of Way of the Dragon that transforms Lee from a rippley-muscled killing machine into a comedy Chinaman who always needs the toilet for some incomprehensible reason) and Enter The Dragon was certainly the best of his work.  Those films were mainly great due to Bruce Lee himself of course, but I think Enter The Dragon stood head and shoulders above the rest due to its supporting cast. Characters such as Roper (the hairy-chested playboy), O’Hara (possessed of a truly unconvincing scar), Bolo (massive-chested end of level boss), the villainous Mr Han (complete with a collection of spare hand weapons more versatile than a Swiss army knife) and of course Jim Kelly as Williams.

Back in those days only the real martial artists like Lee, Van Damme, Norris, Chan and their ilk were considered to have the skills to make movies of this nature.  These days it seems like all it takes is a few months training combined with clever filming techniques and a bunch of special effects is all that’s needed to make guys like Keanu Reeves or Christian Bale into doom-ninjas and the era of the guy who could kick ass off the screen as well as on it has passed, which is a shame. Jim Kelly was one of those guys – a  genuine karate black belt and true martial artist, but he also had a charisma that many of the other martial artist actors lacked.  From Williams’s first appearance in Enter The Dragon where he takes on a pair of racist cops, to his untimely demise at the weaponised fake hand of Mr Han, his outgoing personality provides a nice contrast to Lee’s more traditionally stoic Shaolin monk act that helps make a good kung fu film great.

After Enter The Dragon Kelly went on to star in several other kung fu movies, mostly in the blaxplotation genre where he played a greatly exaggerated version of  his Willams character. In movies like Black Belt Jones and Three The Hard Way Kelly is like some kind of samurai version of John Shaft, kicking ass to a wacky-wacky funk guitar soundtrack and lookin’ fine at the same time.  It’s pretty easy to dismiss these films as typical 70s grindhouse fare, but let’s not forget Kelly was something of a pioneer here as the first real black star in the cinematic martial arts oeuvre. And irregardless of the breaking of colour barriers n’ that they’ve got some great fight scenes that make them well worth watching anyway.

After drifting away from the silver screen it turns out Kelly started a career as a tennis professional and coach of all things (according to the stories I’ve been reading recently).  He might have not reached the heights of stardom he experienced in  Enter The Dragon again, but he’ll always hold a special place in the hearts of fans of Bruce Lee’s work and martial arts movies in general. And if anyone wants to argue with that opinion, I feel I’d have to respond in the way that seems to honor Jim Kelly’s memory best.

‘Bull-shit, Mr Han Man.’

Obviously that works best if their name happens to be Han, but I wouldn’t let a minor point like a person’s name get in the way of a chance to come out with a classic line that one.

Rest in peace, Jim Kelly.

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From → Musings

3 Comments
  1. darkwriter67 permalink

    Reblogged this on Illuminite Caliginosus and commented:
    This was sad news, indeed. I had to dig out my copy of EtD for a honorary viewing when I heard.

  2. lkeke permalink

    I loved this character in EtD. Im so sad to hear of his passing. I’ll have to watch my copy of the movie in remembrance.

    You are a fan of giant monsters so I’m going to guess you are totally geeking out the same way I am over Pacific Rim. And then later on in July -Wolverine and the Ninjas, which is the title I have decided for that movie cuz you cannot have ninjas in a movie and not mention them in the title.

  3. As a comics and martial arts geek I should be stupidly excited for Wolverine and the Ninjas (which is totally what that film should be called), but to be honest I’m barely aware of it’s existence. Pacific Rim has got me in such a lather that pretty much no other movie could possibly grab my attention at the moment. I only hope it delivers what it promises as I don’t think I could cope with the disappointment if it turns out to be a dud.

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