MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS
Color, 1976, 95m.
Directed by Fred Williamson
Starring Fred Williamson, Roddy McDowall, Stuart Whitman, Anthony Caruso, R.G. Armstrong, Elliott Gould
Code Red (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
Basically another riff on Narrow Margin but with far more hand-to-hand combat, this brainless, entertaining action thriller was one of the earliest self-financed efforts for action star Williamson, who had made a name for himself with successful early Ď70s hits like Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem. Here he directs himself as a no nonsense tough guy who enjoys a good cigar and an even better woman, even if he spends much of his time hauling a milquetoast account around by the lapels. Despite the effective but repetitious funk score, this isnít really a blaxploitation picture despite all efforts to sell it that way over the years; as with Williamsonís subsequent films from his Poí Boy production company, this is just a straight-up, bare knuckles chase movie pitting our hero against a lot of thugs from L.A. to New York.
Due to its indie status, Death Journey has been bootlegged frequently on DVD in various black action compilations from a number of budget labels. Most of these have been derived from the miserable-looking Unicorn VHS release, which not only hacked the scope compositions into gibberish but was also taken from a censored TV print. Code Redís official release, first on DVD in 2010 and then on Blu-ray in 2016, is a different beast entirely and makes for a far more entertaining experience as it restores the original, essential widescreen framing and reinstates a few extra bits of footage. (And yes, Williamsonís hilarious, completely gratuitous nude scene is intact.) The image quality is exceptional, looking very sharp on the DVD and even more pristine on the more recent, fresh scan done for the Blu-ray (apart from a handful of dark, gritty shots clearly caught with zoom lenses).
Williamson appears for both a lively audio commentary (moderated by the label's Walt Olsen) and an enjoyable half-hour video chat in which he talks about the genesis of the film including the controversial basis of the name of his main character, who was resurfaced in future Poí Boy films like No Way Back, The Last Fight, and the nuttiest entry of them all, Blind Rage (about a heist pulled off by the visually impaired), which really merits a DVD release of its own. He also discusses the budget-impaired difficulties with shooting a cross-country chase film and how he got frequent co-star DíUrville Martin to pop by for a quick role. The original theatrical trailer is included, while the DVD also includes additional trailers for Mean Johnny Barrows, Brute Corps, Choke Canyon, and No Way Back.
Discharged from the military after punching out an abusive superior officer, Mean Johnny Barrows (Williamson) winds up homeless when heís robbed fresh off the bus home to Los Angeles. His service in Vietnam and former football glory do little to stop his downward spiral thanks to repeated police harassment and low-paying menial gas station work. However, a mob offer to serve as a hit man for the powerful Racconi family turns out to be a tempting offer he might not be able to refuse, and soon his proficiency with deadly weapons turns out to be just the ticket for a whole new life.
Though it starts off like a fairly earnest social drama, Mean Johnny Barrows eventually explodes into wonderfully entertaining drive-in fare. Williamsonís explosion into violence is a wonder to behold, not to mention the head-spinning cast of buddies he recruited including a hilarious Roddy McDowall (as the head of the rival DaVinci family), Stuart Whitman as the Racconi boss, Elliott Gould in a scene-stealing glorified cameo as a philosophizing barfly, former screen Tarzan Mike Henry, and even a bit appearance by Leon Isaac Kennedy.
As with its release of Death Journey, Code Red's edition contains Williamsonís original complete directorís cut which clocks in six minutes longer than the gutted TV prints included in a number of grey market releases (which are also brutally pan and scanned). The restoration of the original scope framing here is even more important, finally making this film enjoyable and watchable on a level no one could have anticipated before. Once again, the 2010 DVD looks solid while the 2016 Blu-ray hops well past it in every single category. Williamson also contributes another commentary and a 19-minute video interview in which he talks about making the jump to directing and starting his own company, as well as his intentions to diverge from the usual blaxploitation template of the period while making a marketable product that could compete with much more expensive competition. The theatrical trailer is also included while the DVD adds on more trailers for Stigma, Family Honor, Changes, and Challenge of the Dragon. The Blu-ray also features a "trivia mode" that's actually another "Bucket List Theater" intro (4 mins.) with hostess Katarina Leigh Waters (dressed up as a judge) offering tidbits about the making of the film and Williamson's career.