FORCE FOUR THE GUY FROM HARLEM
Color, 1974, 78m.
Directed by Michael Fink
Starring Warhawk Tanzania, Owen Watson, Malachi Lee, Judie Soriano, Sam Schwartz
Color, 1977, 89m.
Directed by Rene Martinez Jr.
Starring Loye Hawkins, Cathy Davis, Patricia Fulton, Vaughn Harris, Wayne Crawford
Code Red (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
THE GUY FROM HARLEM
Very few people are likely to dispute the fact that Warhawk Tanzania, star of the absolutely stupefying Devil's Express, has one of the greatest names of all time. Alas, he was only allowed to grace two films during his brief career, and at last the other one's made it to DVD courtesy of Code Red.
Also issued on VHS as Black Force by Front Row Video, 1975's Force Four was the directorial debut of Michael Fink, who only directed one other film (the VHS staple Velvet Smooth). It's your standard '70s action fare as we're dropped in the middle of a mean neighborhood where an Asian courier can't walk down the street without getting his skull pounded open on the sidewalk. As it turns out, he was carrying a certain African sculpture that's "worth a lot of bread," so it's up to our title quartet of bad asses to track it down. Among them are Jason (Owen Watson, billed in the opening credits as "Owen Wat-sòn, 5th Dan Black Belt"), Adam (Warhawk Tanzania), Eric (Malachi Lee), and token female Billy (Judie Soriano), who use their formidable martial arts combat skills to interrogate and track down a random list of suspects to retrieve the treasure from a crime boss known as "Z" (Schwartz). That means lots of fights, amazing vintage New York street footage, funk music galore from "Life, U.S.A.," and even an R&B musical performance at a backyard party, with very little actual plot to get in the way. As you'd expect, it all ends with the entire cast kicking the crap out of each other in a local park.
The fact that both Watson and Lee are credited with choreographing the martial arts in this film should give you an idea of where the main focus is, and the film even features this disclaimer: "All martial arts sequences in this film are authentic. No attempt has been made to enhance or alter actual fights by the use of special effects or trick photography. A slow motion camera was used to capture specific techniques." Some of the film was clearly shot without sound and dubbed later, apparently in some attempt to emulate the Hong Kong imports of the time, which means you get lots of weirdly looped voices (even when no one's speaking) and wildly inappropriate sound effects during the big showdown scenes. Interestingly, this was shot by Paul Glickman, who worked on several Larry Cohen and Al Adamson (and pseudonymous work on The Opening of Misty Beethoven). Obviously he'd go on to do better work, but we all have to start somewhere. Also, Devil's Express fans should keep an eye out for that film's Wilfredo Roldan ("3rd degree black belt"), who pops up again here as one of the bad guys. And keep an eye out during the end credits for some great names among the fighters like "Thomas La Puppet."
This very, very entertaining slice of vintage action nonsense looks much better on DVD than its ancient VHS edition, which is very difficult to find now. The 1.78:1 framing looks fine throughout, and the source print has nice color but a fair share of scratches, debris, and red splotches. In this case it doesn't detract from the film one iota.
Our second feature sadly has no Warhawk in sight, but that doesn't mean you should skip The Guy from Harlem. Our pre-credits scene kicks off at a cabin where some thug kidnappers are holding a very cranky black woman hostage; she gets especially indignant when she's told an "African princess" is being nabbed to come keep her company. Then it's off to funky credits central as our hero, Harlem private eye Al Connors (jazz vocalist Hawkins in his only feature role), cruises the streets of Miami. At his office he's contacted by his old buddy, David McLeod (Harris), who helped him through some "rough spots" in the past and now wears an amazing pink suit for some reason.
Turns out some representatives from "an African nation" are going to be meeting with the Secretary of State, and some "foreign powers" are bent on interfering. There's also a leak somewhere in the CIA, which is why they need Al to pose as the spouse of the chief of state's wife to keep her safe. Also: "You want to know if she's cute? Yes. But remember, international repercussions. Yes, she's cute." Needless to say, our hound private eye has a tough time resisting his new charge, who likes topless massages and cuddles up close to him on the couch. Of course, it's just a matter of time before she's snatched by the minions of the nefarious Big Daddy (Crawford), which means our vest-wearing hero has to double down on the bad guys to get her back.
Completely inept in every single technical capacity imaginable, this is the perfect co-feature and could actually cause some physical damage if you watch it after drinking alcohol. Again the new transfer is way better than old VHS edition (not to mention the legally dubious bargain DVD from Synergy), with correct framing and the usual bits of vintage print damage here and there. The packaging indicates an audio interview with Hawkins, but it doesn't seem to be accessible anywhere. Instead you get trailers for both films and bonus ones for Devil's Express, Ghetto Warriors (a.k.a. The Black Gestapo), Brotherhood of Death, and Jive Turkey.