Review: Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold

When the idiot Johnson Brothers (Albert Popwell and Caro Kenyatta) fall afoul of a lesbian drug lord known only as The Dragon Lady (Stella Stevens), narcotics agent Cleopatra Jones (Tamara Dobson) hops on a plane to Hong Kong. She eventually gets partnered up with local woman Mi Ling (played by Tanny, otherwise known as Ni Tien), who isn’t too bad at handling herself in a fight, either. Eventually the action moves to The Dragon Lady’s titular casino and Macau where she has basically kept the Johnsons prisoner. Michael Ansara-lookalike Christopher Hunt (who has bizarrely sparse acting credits suggesting there’s a bit of a story there) plays The Dragon Lady’s chief enforcer Mendez, whilst Norman Fell is Cleo’s boss, Stanley.

The original “Cleopatra Jones” was total nonsense, but a really enjoyable blend of Blaxploitation and Roger Moore-era James Bond silliness. It was fun nonsense. This 1975 sequel from director Chuck Bail (mostly a TV director, he previously helmed the Blaxploitation film “Black Samson”) and screenwriter William Tennant (who produced both this and its predecessor) was filmed in Hong Kong and Macau, and is obviously a foreign-lensed version of the same thing. Co-produced by the immortal Run Run Shaw, it’s a bit of a lesser film but still entertaining and certainly colourful. There’s not that much of a drop in entertainment value here.

The opening song sounds like the theme from “The Love Boat”, and the score by Dominic Frontiere (“Chisum”, “The Train Robbers”) sure is a jaunty bit of 70s cheese. I’m actually not sure it really fits the material, though. The title character saying the name ‘Stanley’ about a hundred times within the first 2 minutes gets annoying as hell, though perhaps the character (played by TV veteran Norman Fell) was meant to be like Charlie from “Charlie’s Angels” or something. Meanwhile, star Tamara Dobson is credited with doing her own makeup here and whilst I think some reviewers are a bit nasty with all the drag queen references…it’s hard to mount the rebuttal. Let’s just say her makeup is an acquired taste. The late actress and former model (who had but a brief acting career before disappearing into relative obscurity before her death in 2006 from MS at just 59) is in good form here, though. Apparently the tallest leading lady in cinematic history, Dobson’s Cleo is as ever, strong, fiercely independent, sassy, classy, and you certainly won’t fail to notice her walking into a room. The director and cinematographer certainly get the most out of Hong Kong and eventually Macau. The locations are colourful, and the ridiculously attired title character strikes a bizarre-yet-cool figure in it. I much preferred her wardrobe in the first film and certainly the makeup, but you won’t be able to take your eyes of Dobson here. It’s a real shame she’d leave the industry in 1984, because this could’ve actually become an African-American female Bond-esque series at least into the 80s. Unlike most Blaxploitation vehicles, “Cleopatra Jones” has always been a little different, in fact with a couple of tweaks it could’ve been turned into a TV series, an African-American variant of “Police Woman”, perhaps.

Last time out our villainess was butch lesbian drug lord named Mommy, played like a 60s “Batman” villain by the inimitable Shelley Winters. This time out our villainess is a less butch but still lesbian drug lord named The Dragon Lady, played by the less inimitable but more stylish Stella Stevens. Ms. Stevens sure looks stellar in a purple suit and pimp hat, uses an interesting strategy of playing the role rather seriously, but also not terribly menacing or outwardly evil. She doesn’t need to, because her character’s reputation precedes her and is intimidating already. She’s not as memorable as Winters, but I’m glad she didn’t try to out-ham her, because that’s a race Stevens just couldn’t win. She does give Dobson a run for her money in the costuming department though, especially with that green dress with what looks like yellow dildos pictured on it. I swear they’re yellow dildos. Watch the film and tell me I’m wrong. Old faves Albert Popwell and Caro Kenyatta are back as the Johnson Brothers, but rather implausibly if you ask me. In what is really my only issue with the entire film, their unexplained venture into drug dealing just doesn’t jive with the dorky wannabe tough guys from the first film. They’re ne’er-do-wells, sure. But criminals? I’m not buying that at all, unless I was missing something.

The film is slightly more sexually explicit than the first film, but only just. The Dragon Lady is seen on a bed making out with at least three chicks but the camera angles and lighting obscure most of the fun. Stevens doesn’t even nude up which is weird, it’s not like she’s ever been shy on that front. Aside from the really lovely set design in the Macau scenes, what really gives this film a lift is the action. Dobson and Stevens may never be convincing throwing down, but the other action is actually a lot of fun. There’s an amusing scene where it looks like Tanny (AKA actress Ni Tien) is about to be set upon by thugs. They tie her up with her own bathrobe rope and she still kicks their arses. There sure are some strong women in this film. Meanwhile, we get some interesting handheld camerawork in a bike vs. foot chase through the streets and down stairs. That’s fun stuff too. It’s the climax, though where the fun really turns up. You get Cleo firing a machine gun while riding sidecar on a trail bike indoors, and lots of butt-kicking in what is clearly the best thing in either of the two films. It’s that much fun, and the knock-down, drag out fight between the stunt doubles of Ms. Dobson and Ms. Stevens is a helluva thing to see, as well.

This is of a lesser standard than the first film, but not by enough to stop it from being fun. It’s certainly vastly superior to the similar “TNT Jackson” (and looks a bit more expensive thankfully), even if star Dobson is not much more convincing in a fight than Jeannie Bell and her clearly male stunt double in that film. A fun, action-packed movie with a heroine who has a uh…sense of style that’s all her own. It’s colourful, features strong women, and barely any brains. Who’d want brains though, in a film with a main character called Cleopatra Jones and a villain named The Dragon Lady?

Rating: B-


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