As I reported in my B-Fest 2000 Diary, I received many kind gifts from the folks who deigned to attend that event. Amongst the various sitemasters on hand was Joe Bannerman, proprietor of the Opposable Thumbs Film site and creator of the world famous Hasselhoff Scale. (Joe is also to be congratulated for having recently joined the ranks of the B-Masters’ Cabal.) Joe’s offering, and he in fact provided many of his colleagues with copies, was the film Street Wars. He seemed quite keen on it, and now that I’ve viewed it I can see why. So I dedicate this review to him and to our loyal reader Jonathon Washington, who has long requested to see a Blaxploitation film appear at this site. Here you go, Jonathon, hope this suffices.
You’d think Blaxploitation films that merited the malign attention of Jabootu would be easy to find. It isn’t, after all, a genre generally regarded with much respect by cinephiles. And, were this a general B-Movie site, I’m sure a handful of such films would have already made their appearance or been added to The List. However, we at Jabootu are extraordinarily picky. One of our oft-stated criteria is that our subjects must fail at what they are trying to do. This proves the rub for Blaxploitation pics. For never has there been a more laidback, easy-going genre. Blaxploitation movies tend, whatever else they may be doing, not to take themselves very seriously. With their heyday in the ’70s, the pinnacle era of kitsch, these films flaunted their goofiness with an affable wink or a fearsome snarl. However enjoyable such films may be, they tend to fit uneasily with our mission here.
There are always exceptions to the rule, though, and here is a fine one. Street Wars is, as so many of our subjects tend to be, largely the work of one man. In this case, writer/producer/director Jamaa Fanaka. Admittedly not a household name, Mr. Fanaka pops up every once in a while and almost single-handedly puts a film together. In the mid-70’s he made two Blaxploitation flicks, Emma Mae and Soul Vengeance. It was in 1979, though, that his best-known film was released. This was Penitentiary, a rather over-the-top tale of a bantamweight boxer and his adventures in prison. Sequels followed in 1982 and 1987, each stranger than the one before. By its end the series featured more dwarves and transvestites than anything made outside of Italy. After Penitentiary III, Mr. Fanaka’s patient fans waited a full five years before being rewarding with the 1992 release of our current subject. Unfortunately, the years since have remained Fanaka-free. We can only hope he is working on his long-awaited magnum opus.
Mr. Fanaka’s work can be hard to judge. His films tend to be rather outlandish, and the Penitentiary films are, presumably, outright camp. Street Wars also possibly falls into this category, although it is, to my eye, played pretty much straight. To paraphrase David St. Hubbins, the line between clever and stupid is mighty thin. If the film is meant to be a parody, however, my hat’s off to the man. It would represent a preternaturally sly example of the breed. Yet my sense, honed through many years of watching this stuff, is that the film is merely insane. And it’s on that judgment that I base the following.
We open on some pleasure boats cruising an urban shoreline. The narrated words of our hero, Sugar Pop (!), are heard, explaining that he’s on break from Exeter Military Academy. (Sugar Pop’s moniker isn’t so weird in the Jamaa Fanaka universe; the hero of the Penitentiary trilogy was named Too Sweet.) His older brother Frank, a big time crack dealer, owns the boat the two are relaxing on. Following Blaxploitation tradition, the film is rather morally lax about criminal activity, which is often posited as a healthy rebellion against an oppressive White America. Blaxploitation heroes might seek revenge against the drug dealer who addicted/killed his brother, for example. Yet they would never sell out by working with the police in any way, even if it seemed in their interest to do so.
For a typical example of this phenomena, see TNT Jackson. (In fact, see it if only for the sequence where the heroine fights a bunch of guys while wearing only a teeny-tiny pair of panties.) In that film the lead kills her lover when he’s revealed to be behind her brother’s death. At the same time, the film deals a harsh death to a white female cop who seems to be after pretty much the same guys. Ultimately, dealing with fellow blacks, even predatorily murderous ones, is to be kept in-house. The White Establishment must never be allowed to co-opt the hero in any way. Even Richard Roundtree’s Shaft, a comparatively liberal-minded film in this regard, features a white cop who Shaft at best can just barely tolerate. Which is still, in fact, an unusually close relationship between a Blaxploitation hero and a white authority figure. And it’s based on the fact that the white cop always ultimately backs off and lets Shaft call the shots.
Sugar Pop represents the prototypical minority member who effortlessly achieves success in The White Man’s world while retaining his street cred. Hence his attendance at Exeter, the “top military prep school in the country.” To demonstrate his mastery of the King’s English, Sugar Pop’s narration is peppered with stiltedly ornate verbiage. For instance, his brother is described as “the quintessential gangster, the top street entrepreneur in The City.” In this way Sugar Pop is reminiscent of Anne, the American Indian character from Steven Seagal’s The Patriot. She, as we’re informed upon meeting her, has learned everything an Establishment college can teach. Having succeeded in this, she, like Sugar Pop, then returned to her people. Her explicitly stated reason for this was to learn folk wisdom from her grandfather, knowledge that no White Man’s school could ever provide.
What interests me about this kind of character is how it parallels the manner in which Anglo-Saxon heroes, especially British ones, used to be portrayed. They, too, were superior figures, and could be counted on to dominate whatever society they were dropped into. Maroon an English infant in the wilds of Africa and he will grow up to be Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle. Another staple was the white orphan adopted by an Asian martial arts master, who grows up to outperform his adoptive father’s natural-born son. Of course, such material is now rather frowned upon as Eurocentric. The quite decent 1995 actioner The Hunted, for example, features Christopher Lambert as a Westerner on the run from the Yakuza. Hiding out in a dojo, he proves a quick study with a sword. However, the film is careful to have him beat his Japanese opponent only because that fellow has been wounded and can’t fully extend his arms. Admittedly, this also makes more sense, since even a talented novice shouldn’t be able to beat someone who’s trained all their lives. Still, even ten years earlier that might have been how it was played.
Minority characters, though, perhaps due to insecurity regarding their status in society, are still allowed — ‘sanctioned’ might be a better word — the use of this mythology. Such tropes, presumably, are meant to reassure their intended audience that the hero could fully succeed on White America’s terms, but has forthrightly chosen not to. In such cases, what would be considered prohibitively retrograde for white characters is permissible so as to foster a sense of racial self-esteem. This is, however, diametrically opposed to the mindset which had once portrayed fictional (and non-fictional) Anglo-Saxon whites as the naturally superior man. The Brits weren’t insecure, quite the opposite. The members of this tiny island nation had in fact conquered almost every foreign country they encountered. Masters of large portions of America, Africa, India, Australia and China, the Brits considered themselves quite justified in claiming such archetypes as their own.
Even if, however, you grant present day minorities this politically correct exemption (which I don’t), this film crosses the line. Later in the picture, a fellow who is apparently an actual representative of the Fruit of Islam appears. He is allowed to spew forth a bunch of racial garbage that might well result in riots were a ‘white’ film to so favorably present similar material. I’ll detail this as the scene arrives.
Anyway, digression over with, let’s return to our movie. Frank and Sugar Pop are on his boat. Sugar Pop is extolling Frank’s conspicuous consumption, which is straightforwardly treated as the well-earned fruits of his success. “Damn, Frank,” our hero opines, leaning back and with his crotch thrust right into the camera, “this is fresh!” (Here it becomes clear that the dialog is looped in, saving the filmmakers the effort and expense of shooting the sound ‘live’.) In explicating his rather unorthodox concept of spirituality, Frank riffs on the literal warehouse full of stuff he’s bought. “Whenever I was having second thoughts about what I was doing,” he explains, “or got depressed about anything, I’d go there and meditate. And before long, I’d be cool again.” You know, Frank should really give up drug dealing. He could make much more running some of those Dare To Be Rich! seminars. Or maybe not, since he eventually realized that these “trinketsâ€¦don’t mean doodly.” (Actually, I believe that most real world drug dealers employ the phraseology ‘doodly squat.’) Apparently he now deals crack not in pursuit of vulgar materialism, but rather as an avenue to achieve personal growth.
Cue credits. The film, we learn, is presented by Bea, Bob and Bee Honey. Presumably their close associate Mable Syrup was busy just then. Following is the title card, which announces the film as Jamaa Fanaka’s Street Wars. Said text, as seen above, is rather audaciously presented in the famous slanted Star Wars font. This is a bold choice, as it invites sputtering audience disbelief mere seconds into the film. Even funnier is that Star Wars was released seventeen years before this film. You’d think if you were going to so blatantly rip a famous icon off you could choose something a little more current.
This is followed by the image of a motorized ultra-light plane, badly superimposed over some clouds. Piloting it is Sugar Pop, and we perceive that this is a flash-forward to Sugar Pop’s term at Exeter. “I took to [his matriculation there] like an eagle to the skies,” Sugar Pop rather unimaginatively expounds. It’s the day before summer vacation, and we cut to a painted banner reading “Exeter Military Academy / Flight Training Facility.” This meager text and the accompanying graphic are all woefully mis-centered, leading one to posit that military academies have let their standards of signage excellence slip rather precipitously.
The cadets’ khaki-wearing instructor lays out some exposition. Laughably, he refers to the rudimentary ultra-light craft displayed here as being “high tech.” Presumably he means it is powered by a motor from a self-propelling lawn mower, as opposed to those models which need be manually pushed. Said craft, in any case, allow the assembled *cough* “young high schoolers” to “master flight before most of you are old enough for an automobile driver’s license.” This should be handy in helping to pin down where exactly Exeter is, since there can’t be too many states that prohibit people under the age of twenty-five from getting their license.
The instructor is introducing the top cadet — guess who — who is assured “an automatic appointment to West Point.” Here the camera roams the small rank of students, including one fellow who oddly is wearing his sunglasses in formation. I hope you have a chit for that, cadet! Actually, considering the variety of headgear on display in the ranks, I would have to guess that Exeter is a little looser on the old dress code than one might have thought. As well, despite the no-doubt awesome discipline these *cough* youngsters have learned, they’ve yet to be drilled, apparently, on how not to stare into the camera when it glides past.
This is followed by a ‘humorous’ bit, wherein the Instructor repeatedly cues Sugar Pop’s appearance in the ultra-light but fails to get any response. Presumably this is meant to assure the audience that being the top cadet in the nation’s finest military prep school doesn’t necessarily mean toadying up to The Man. Sugar Pop, once he’s in the mood, eventually appears in the opposite direction from which he’s supposed to. He proceeds to buzz the cadets from behind and then mows down some targets from the air with a sub-machine gun. Oddly, the Instructor reacts to this dangerous and disorderly foolishness with a hearty, “Well done, Cadet!” Apparently military school is much more unlike Navy boot camp than I had previously supposed. Meanwhile, I’m starting to wonder whether Sugar Pop’s Informed Attributes in the field of battle avionics will come into play later in the film. Hmm.
Cut to Sugar Pop cruising a Boyz N the Hood-esque neighborhood on a motor scooter (!). Given the palm trees I think we can safely assume we’re somewhere in Los Angeles or thereabouts. Said footage is accompanied by a none-too successful rap tune featuring the lyrics (go figure) “Streetâ€¦Wars…badda baddaâ€¦Streetâ€¦Wars.” We then cut to some black teens playing a street game of touch football. Actually, ‘punch’ football would be a more accurate term. Sugar Pop drives up and is quickly challenged. This is probably because he’s the only black guy other than Urkel who rides around on a motor scooter. Our Hero reacts by tapping a button on his handlebars. This results in smoke bombs going off in his twin tailpipes. He then, through the miracle of slowly cranked film, speeds by at a purportedly high rate. Lest we fail to understand what’s occurring here, the film helpfully provides a kid who exclaims, “Damn, that’s fast!” Pulling up on a lawn via the kind of speeded-up maneuver generally accompanied by Benny Hill music, Sugar Pop dismounts to approach Twyla, his Significant Other. “Exeter was cool except for one important detail,” Frank narrates. “No ladies.” Which is odd, for earlier we saw some female cadets amongst his assembled classmates. Twyla, for her part, is glad to see her returning beau. “Sugar Pop,” she exclaims, “you be buggin’!”
Asking about his souped-up motor scooter — an idea generally abandoned, I believe, once the motorcycle had been invented — she learns that it was a class project in Pragmatics. “We take one of the theories that we study in Physics and actually apply it,” he explains. “I chose jet propulsion.” First, I don’t think ‘jet propulsion’ is a ‘theory’ of physics, per se, and second, there are reasons you don’t jet propel a forty-pound motor scooter. Despite this, we never see Sugar Pop cream into the side of a building milliseconds after hitting the activation button. This would seem to indicate that the universe this film represents operates under a set of physical laws rather further from our own than those, say, displayed in a Wyle E. Coyote cartoon.
Comedy relief is provided through the obligatory Profane Old Black Man. He comes driving down the street, all honkin’ and cussin’ and a-poppin’ his eyes. In response, the kids laugh and swarm around his car, offering him dime bags of crack. His companion, meanwhile, is a haggard old woman with peroxide blond hair. Ha! Listen to them argue! He calls her a ‘bitch’ and tells her to turn down the radio, which we can barely hear, and she replies, “Honey, please, I’ve gots to have my music!” Man, that’s comedy. I should point out that were this film made by white people, such material might be considered racist. Luckily it wasn’t.
Ignoring the rabble, the fellow turns into a driveway — not literally; I mean he directs his car onto a driveway — and up to a window covered with a steel plate. This sports a small arm hole, revealing the home to be a drive-up crack house. While they skip the seemingly inevitable “Do you want fries with that?” jape, we do get a reference to the establishment as being a “Crack-in-the-Box.” (Frankly, if I were a dealer, I’d discourage the kids outside from offering drugs to my customers. Surely there’s some zoning ordnance covering this sort of thing.) Inside, Neckbone, the kid selling the dope, is, uh, humorously complaining about how hard his algebra is. It’s good to know that his part-time job isn’t interfering with his education. At this point a camera pan reveals him to be wheelchair bound. Apparently Frank is a very progressive drug dealer. Or maybe he just knows that having the EEOC on your back is a lot more bothersome than the attentions of the DEA. In any case, the section of the room with the drugs and money is separated from the rest by some steel cage bars. Packed in tight on the other side is their walk-in trade. Now, I had assumed that one fortified such a place of business specifically so that no one other then the employees could enter it. Apparently I’m not as up on modern crack house design as I had thought.
Here we are introduced to the film’s oddest character, Christy, seen running cash through a counting machine. His appearance assures the knowledgeable fan that this is a Jamaa Fanaka film, as Christy’s a muscular transsexual male, or whatever the correct terminology is, sporting implanted breasts and bright red lipstick and fingernails. It’s with stuff like this that Fanaka most breaks with Blaxploitation tradition. A genre excessively concerned with machismo, Blaxploitation has historically been extremely hostile to male homosexuality. Christy then calls Twyla on a walkie-talkie and tells her to shoo the kids off. (How he knew what they were doing is left unexplained, as he can’t see them from inside the house.) Twyla replies that she has tried, but that they won’t listen to her. Sugar Pop, meanwhile, is displeased to see that Twyla is working for his brother. He doesn’t want her involved with such sordid dealings, or something. Twyla only does it because she’s got a good heart, though. She tends for the kids of her sister, who’s become a crack addict.
This provides a segue to the woman, who’s back over in the crack house. Hoping for a hit, she begins removing her clothes for the amusement of Meatloaf — the henchman, not the singer. As this progresses we hear Sugar Pop’s voiceovers, lamenting on what has befallen her. “She was once a really beautiful lady,” he explains, “who took pride in herself and took immaculate care of her three kids. But crack had collected its dues.” Yet and all, though, the woman is in surprisingly good shape for a crack addict, as we get to see at some length. She is also, by the way, white. I mention this so as to confirm that, in most ways, Fanaka’s a Blaxploitation traditionalist. Having white women in often degrading sexual situations is a staple of the genre. Oddly, I’m pretty sure that Twyla is black, albeit light-skinned. So I don’t know what’s going on with that. Nor do I understand why Twyla’s willing to work for the people that turned her sister into a crack addict. Maybe I’m just judgmental.
Hearing her pathetic entreaties, we see Christy slowly turn to face her, his forehead quivering with rage. Really, you should see this; it’s quite unusual, like the ability to wiggle your ears, only rarer. He tells Meatloaf to cut it out – Christy, Crack House Moralist — and the guy responds with a non-politically correct term for Christy’s sexual orientation. “I happen to be proud homo-sex-chile,” (that’s how it sounds, anyway) comes Christy’s heated response, along with a slap. “That makes me a woman by desire and a man by nature!” Uh, ok.
Outside a suspicious van pulls up on the street. It’s suspicious mostly because they bother to cut to it and because it’s white. Twyla calls for Sugar Pop to look out, but it’s a false scare. She’s referring to a football arcing his way. He turns and catches it, and some of the guys come over to hassle him. Twyla stiltedly tells him to ignore them. (It must be said, this woman just can not act.) Of course, a Man’s gotta do what a Man’s gotta do. So Sugar Pop lobs the ball high into the air and then, in an unlikely bit, outraces everyone else to again catch it. This causes him to slam into the van. Hearing noises from inside, he becomes wary.
Frank drives up with his Mr. T-like bodyguard Humungous. Sugar Pop advises Frank as to his suspicions regarding the van, and is told to head for Twyla’s house. Then, quoting Nietzsche (!), Frank and Humungous arm themselves and exit their car. Noting that they’re unaware of their opponents’ number (“Don’t know how many pumpkinheads are in there,” Humungous says, leading B-Movie aficionado Andrew Muchoney to observe that, assuming he was referring to the sort of Pumpkinhead as seen in the movie of that name, it wouldn’t much matter), the henchman chooses Big Mouth, a sawed-off double-barreled shotgun. Which seems like exactly the wrong choice, since once you’ve fire both barrels you’d be out of ammo. Admittedly, he takes a pistol as a backup, but I’d still go with a semi-automatic assault rifle or shotgun under the conditions.
Cutting inside the van, we see a variety of armed men donning ski masks. At this a rather poorly filmed gun battle ensues. Humungous fires into the vehicle and their opponents pour out, oddly unharmed considering all the buckshot that just sprayed through the compartment. Also issuing from the van is a cloud of smoke, the result of an attack that hasn’t occurred yet (!). Inside the crack house, Christy and Neckbone start firing out of windows that, as far as I could tell, aren’t facing anyone but their own panicked customers. As this crowd runs down the street, and despite the copious amounts of bullets being fired from numerous positions, almost no one seems to get hurt. I especially like the family sitting on their porch right behind one gunman, directly in the line of fire every time Frank unloads a clip in the guy’s direction.
Somehow Frank and Humongous manage to remain unscathed, despite being fired upon by half a dozen attackers who are roughly ten feet away and employing automatic weapons. At this point Humungous reaches into the back of Frank’s car and unlimbers a grenade launcher (!). Perhaps this weapon could have been used with more effect earlier, when all their opponents were crowded inside the van. (Although the shotgun blast he directed there didn’t harm anyone, so maybe not.) Still, he fires and a couple of guys leap up into the air in a manner perhaps meant to imply an explosion. At this, the surviving gunman lose heart and jump back into the rear of the van, you know, the one Humungous just fired an explosive device into. I guess they were just assuming that he wouldn’t be carrying any spare rounds around. Also, wouldn’t it have been a good idea to assign a driver to keep the van running during the melee? Of course, this isn’t my line of work, so I’m really just talking out of my hat here.
I think the grenade attack is supposed to be responsible for the smoke now gushing from the van compartment, you know, into which all the bad guys are now running. Hence my puzzlement at the smoke seen pouring out from before the grenade was fired. I especially like how you can actually see the smoke canisters used to create this effect. Usually film crews will try to hide these little tricks of the trade. Boom mikes lowering into the scene are fairly common, and I do remember an electrical generator being left in shot in The Holcroft Covenant, but this sighting of a spewing smoke canister is pretty rare.
Taking advantage of the confusion, which is mostly the result of how the sequence is edited, Frank and Humungous make it into the crack house. Meanwhile, Meatloaf, the underling who earlier referred to Christy’s lifestyle choice in an uncomplimentary fashion, now pays for his politically incorrect ways by mysteriously choosing this exact moment to flee the safe house. (‘Flee the safe house.’ See how wrong that sounds?) This results in him trotting out in plain view of the van, so we’re not exactly shocked when he falls to a hail of bullets.
Inside, we get one of our goofier moments when Frank and his subordinates dump their weapons, drugs and money into a barrel of murky green ‘acid’ to destroy any evidence. One can only wonder what kind of acid will quickly and completely dissolve the tempered metals used to make firearms, yet fail to eat through the thin sides of the tin barrel it lays in. Also, why is the liquid bubbling when they remove the top? Doesn’t acid have to be reacting to something before it starts agitating? Finally, given how corrosive this substance purportedly is, I’d personally be a tad more careful regarding how I went chucking stuff into the liquid. I mean, cripes, they’re practically sticking their hands into the stuff.
Outside, Rock, the leader of the opposition, angrily mows down his own cowering men. I always wondered how guys like this got more henchmen after such an incident. It certainly isn’t much of an inducement to join his crew. Then, standing right out in the street, he removes his ski mask before running off. Good thing for him that none of the people in the crack house, or over at Twyla’s lookout post (or, for that matter, any of the folks previously shown sitting on their porches) manage to catch a glimpse of him, since Rock will soon be revealed to be *gasp* one of Frank’s own men.
I’d like to invite anyone with a large amount of time on their hands to plot out where everyone’s supposed to be during this sequence. Here an example of things for you. Take note of how Rock, sitting in the van, sees Frank driving up through his side rearview mirror. Yet when Sugar Pop informs Frank of the van, we see that the vehicle is now parked facing towards them. (Then there’s the fact that, if you rewind and use your slow-mo, you can see the van, complete with bullet holes, back when the comedy relief couple in the car drove up to the crack house. This was not only before the gunfight, but prior to when the van was established as arriving.) Also, when Sugar Pop runs over to Twyla’s house for cover, he lands a few feet in front of her and looks off to the right. Yet Twyla is clearly staring over to the left. I suppose one of them could be looking at something other than the raging gun battle, but how likely is that?
There’s quite a lot such stuff here. Tightly focused shots and (somewhat) frenetic editing are used to (not really) disguise the fact that people seem to be firing in the wrong direction vis-â€¡-vis what’s been established. Jason referred to this phenomena in his Firewalker review, noting that it’s technically called ‘crossing the action axis.’ Moreover, the lack of medium and long shots helps (a little) to draw attention away from the fact that these people should be firing away at each other from what amounts to pointblank range. This kind of thing was parodied in a Police Squad episode where a series of close-ups shows Leslie Nielson and a criminal firing at each other. When the camera pulls back, we see that they’re firing from opposite sides of a garbage can. In any case, I gave up trying to figure out where everyone was supposed to be relative to everyone else when I started, literally, to get a headache. But if anyone else wants a go at it, I’ll be glad to post your findings.
The battle concluded, Frank orders Sugar Pop to check on Ma Gram, their grandmother. He hops on his motor scooter and, since this is an emergency, hits the jet propulsion button. This causes other vehicles near him to drive very slowly while the camera is undercranked. If this is the kind of stuff he learned in Physics at Exeter, I’m very impressed. I’m also amazed at how long a motor scooter can maintain these *cough* extraordinary speeds without burning out it’s wee engine. Eventually he arrives at Ma Gram’s house, spewing cartoon smoke (!!) from his tailpipes. This it looks exactly like the animated smoke they’d matt in on I Dream of Jeannie when she’d leave her bottle. Inside, Sugar Pop runs around and shouts Ma Gram’s name for a while, until we come to suspect the worst. (Which, in this case, is that we’re not even a sixth of the way through the movie yet.) However, she soon appears safe and sound, dressed like an elderly Eartha Kitt getting ready for a night on the town.
Cut to TV reporter Rachel Gordon, a woman sporting hair that looks like the result of licking your finger and jamming it into an electrical socket. She’s reporting on the arrest of Frank and his crew, who are described as “youth gangsters.” Considering that both Frank and Humungous appear to be in their thirties, this seems a bit odd. She also expositories that the shootout signals a full-fledged drug war. Frank and Humungous then leave the jailhouse, as patently bogus watermelon, watermelon noises are looped in over the extras portraying members of the press. This works about as well as when you watch a movie with a friend and he pretends to speak for a character in the film.
Next we get a *groan* character scene, featuring Frank, Humungous and Ma Gram as they drive around in Frank’s limo. Let’s see. Ma Gram loves both of them dearly. They love her. She thinks they should get out of the crack business. “You’ve made enough money,” she inevitably argues. Just as formulaically, Franks answers by noting, “There ain’t no such thing as ‘enough’ money.” He then riffs on how money brings you power and power brings you love and otherwise rips off, in an exceedingly poor fashion, Al Pacino’s character in Scarface. On the other hand, of course, he means to keep Sugar Pop clean. That’s why he sent him to Exeter, so that he can “learn how The Man thinks,” and compete in the legit world. Well, best laid plans and all that.
As they drop Ma Gram home, the limo drives through a bank of patently manufactured fog. Someone involved with this film got a real deal on dry ice machines and smoke canisters and was bound and determined to get their money’s worth. I’ve never seen so much pointless exterior fog, nor so many opaquely smoke-filled rooms, not even in the exuberantly hazy Body of Evidence. With Ma Gram gone, Frank calls henchman Big Daddy and tells him to arrange for a meeting of the Knights of Round Table. (Don’t worry; we’ll get to that in a bit.) Oddly, he mentions that the meeting be held that evening at “eight sharp.” Now, as far as I can tell, this movie takes place in California, probably Los Angeles. Yet it’s already dark out, and Frank and Humongous will stage a retaliatory strike, stop at home for a sex break (Worry; we’ll get to that in a bit) and stop to watch a street basketball game before the meeting starts. With all the driving and whatnot entailed, let’s generously say that these activities will take two hours. That means that it’s now, at the latest, six o’clock, but let’s even go further and say it’s six-thirty. Does it ever get dark that early in California?
Frank and Humungous transfer themselves from the limousine to a TV reporting van, complete with transmitting dish, which has been stolen by Christy. This is an interesting choice, as a stolen TV reporting van is probably one of the few vehicles even more conspicuous than a giant white limo. “Frank once told me,” Sugar Pop’s narration explains, “that he could never sleep without striking back at a wrong that had been done him. Tonight he planned to sleep well.” Strangely enough, I also plan to sleep well tonight, although in my case it’s because I’ve spent numerous hours staring at this movie.
Knowing that the attack occurred at the behest of Gratz, the fellow who runs crack on “the North side,” Frank orders Christy to head for any one of Gratz’ operations. Christy chooses the Regal Social Club, a spot designated with another of the film’s poor examples of signage. The name of the ‘club’ is haphazardly painted on a window, quite obviously with the kind of paint you can wash off with soap and water. Moreover, there’s another ‘sign’ bearing this information painted onto a piece of typewriting paper and taped to the club’s front door. Outside two homies stand guard. Inside the atmosphere is so hazy that you wonder how the extras obtained enough oxygen to keep from passing out. We also are shown a sign (painted with green water color paint onto a sheet of white butcher paper) offering the crack-smoking patrons the opportunity to “Double Up – 3 Dubs for 50.00”. Now if I’m understanding this correctly, then the regular unit of purchase must be one and a half dubs. As I’m not sure how that would work, I can only admit that there is still much about the business of crack dealing that I’m not totally up on yet.
Frank and Humongous leap out of van, bustin’ some caps. (Get down with Homeboy Ken!) Despite the fact that they are spraying bullets from a couple of Uzis, they are such good shots that only the two guards get hit and not any of the windows the pair are standing amongst. Here we are also introduced to one of the film’s more innovative special effect techniques. Since the budget for blank cartridges was apparently limited — not surprising; such shells can cost a buck a throw — we cut to close-up shots of the weapons. In these, the illusion of gunfire is promulgated via the sophisticated technique of using sparklers shoved into the barrels of the weapons to simulate muzzle flashes. In any case, obeying some Outlaw Code and again showing admirable weapons control, the gunmen hose bullets around the densely smoky room without hitting any of the stampeding patrons. I think. Maybe not, I can’t tell. Whatever.
Their task completed, Frank and Humungous head home for some amorous cavorting. This interlude is justified with the following bit of Sugar Pop narration: “[Frank] said there was something about getting out of jail that makes a man real horny.” (Ah, ever the philosopher, eh, Frank?) Apparently this holds true even when the time spent in the pokey amounts to a couple of hours, as it did in this instance. In any case, it sets up a doozey of a sequence, accompanied by a truly hideous tune entitled “I Want to Sex You Down.” This begins with the inspired lyrics, “I want to sex you down / I want to lick you downâ€¦” followed by a simply atrocious sax riff. Especially noteworthy is the singer occasionally howled “Ooo-ooo-ooo-ooo-ooo!” sounds.
Fanaka apparently decided, to the general detriment of both his film and its audience, to make this sequence all classy and arty and *cough* erotic and stuff. For instance, he entirely foregoes nudity in the scene. (In fact, there’s none in the movie entire, which is a bit strange for this kind of thing.) Instead, Frank ends up atop his lady on the couch, with both of them fully clothed and her legs sticking straight up in the air. Humungous, meanwhile, sticks his head under his partner’s skirt, stands with her balanced upon his shoulders, and walks up a staircase (!) while performing for her a close personal favor. Meanwhile, we cut back and forth from these antics to Sugar Pop, up in his room and playing his drums. As he increases the tempo of his playing, the feature activities go faster also. I doubt if many were surprised when the frolicking comes to a culmination at the same moment Our Hero concludes his drum solo by striking his cymbal. How clever.
Here we execute (a verb I invite you to interpret as you wish) a jump cut to Sugar Pop leaping into Frank’s luxurious backyard pool. He comes up with a sealed bundle of money, one of apparently many to be found on the pool floor. “Damn, Frank,” he exclaims, “you must have millions down there!” “Give or take,” Frank responds, thus indicating why he became a crack dealer rather than pursuing a career as a chartered accountant. Sugar Pop is sent to don his tux. Frank is taking him along with Humungous and the ladies for a night out on the town.
Cut to the aforementioned neighborhood basketball game. This takes place on an extremely (surprise) fog-laden court lit by the headlights of some lined-up automobiles. Again, it’s been dark for seeming hours now; yet Frank’s ‘eight o’clock’ meeting has yet to occur. Anyway. Said game, presumably, is to lend the film some ‘street’ verisimilitude while incidentally eating up another couple minutes of screentime. Sugar Pop, somehow peering out through the murk, spots Twyla and calls the Rolls Royce – Frank left the limo at home — to a halt. He stops for a chat and we see that the event is well attended by wealthy enthusiasts of amateur sport. These fellows are given to supporting their favorites through the medium of some no-doubt friendly, albeit quite large, bets. Also in attendance *gasp* is Rock, who, if you can remember that far back, is the guy who secretly led the assignation attempt earlier this morning. He glowers at his intended targets’ continued existence.
The sporting portion of the evening concluded, the party continues on to Frank’s, a “funky” nightclub owned by, who else, Frank. If you guessed that this facility was identified with a rather amateurishly executed sign, give yourself two points. The club itself, naturally, is a cheap looking, smoke-filled venue. A bit more surprising is the large percentage of patrons prominently drinking Pepsi Cola, served up in the can. Here we meet Frank’s trusted henchman Big Daddy, who disarmed me by looking like Grady from the Sanford and Son show. He confirms that everyone’s waiting, and we soon cut to Frank and Humungous, having donned traditional African tribal robes, entering the back room. Here a bunch of others, similarly attired — even the couple of white guys in attendance [?] — are waiting. One member of the assemblage *gasp* turns out to be Rock.
This gathering, as you may have guessed, represents the previously mentioned Knights of the Round Table. Which seems somewhat odd, as this Anglo-Saxon bit of nomenclature doesn’t really match the African robes and tribal art in evidence. (Unless the phrase ‘Knights of the Round Table’ is yet something else the Europeans stole from Africa, like mathematics and Beethoven.) Nor, for that matter, is the table they sit at round. In fact, it’s a normal rectangular sort of affair, thus making the reference to Knights of the Round Table even more inexplicable. Apparently there’s still much more for me to learn about the trade of crack dealing. The Knights consist of previously warring factions of the South Side drug trade, who are now united under Frank’s rule. The also have a ‘salute’ maneuver so elaborate that it puts those secret Mason handshakes to shame. Frank reveals that they are now officially at war with Gratz.
Speak of the [White] devil. We cut to a helicopter shot of a skyscraper. Inside – presumably — in a room with practically no lighting — who the heck did the cinematography on this picture? — we sort of see Gratz sitting at a desk. Since we never get a good look at him, I expected that later in the film we’d suddenly learn he was secretly another character in the movie, but this proved not to be the case. Apparently he just sits around in the dark because it’s cool, or symbolic, or cheaper than lighting the set, or something. He’s on the phone with Rock, expressing his displeasure at Frank’s continued presence among the living. Here Gratz speaks in an overly calm, whispery voice, apparently designed along with the lighting scheme to lend him a sense of mystery. Or something. Whatever. “Frank hit one of my best spots tonight,” he complains. Considering that the Regal consisted of a large, unfurnished room whose only amenity was an overworked fog machine, this doesn’t lend much credence to the idea of Gratz being a major-league drug lord. Hearing of Frank’s plan to launch a major offensive against him the following evening, Gratz promises to take care of his rival immediately.
Cut to the fancy French eatery Chez Moi. In the kitchen area, one fellow informs another that “It’s on.” The second guy responds by tucking a pistol with silencer into his waistband. I could only dwell on how uncomfortable this would be, since the entire rig must be well over a foot in length. By the way, does Gratz have guys stationed in every restaurant in the city, or what? Anyway, as a regular and, of course, wealthy customer, Frank and his party are personally welcomed by Madam Paulette, the owner. Upon being introduced, Sugar Pop engages with her in a little conversational French. “We were only allowed to speak French at meals [at Exeter],” he explains. “Either we learned the language, or we didn’t eat.” Ah. That explains it.
After their hostess leaves, Frank’s wife (or whatever) turns to the others. “Did you see the look on Madam Paulette’s face [when Sugar Pop spoke French]?” she laughs. “Yeah, well, no matter how nice they are,” a cynical Frank concurs, “they never expect us to have any sense.” OK, let’s look at this. First of all, assuming this bit was in the script and everything, maybe they should have had the actress playing Madam Paulette actually react in some way, which she didn’t. I mean, I’m not a professional filmmaker, but if a character has a line to the effect of, “Did you see the look on her face,” I guess I’d have directed her to make a look of some sort. Second, isn’t it a shame the kind of racism faced by your average black crack-dealer while having a meal at a fancy French restaurant? Allow me to break out my violin.
Third, playing along with the idea that Madam Paulette did look surprised, maybe it’s because American in general aren’t known for their mastery of foreign tongues. And besides, Humungous looked surprised, too. So is he also a racist? Finally, anyone conversant with my writings probably knows that I don’t have much use for the French. Yet I have to say that they don’t really have a history of having a problem with blacks. (Now, if we were talking about Jewsâ€¦) In fact, black American entertainers earlier in the century, such as Josephine Baker, for an obvious example, would often spend a lot of time in France, which tended to be much more hospitable to them than their own country. OK, yes, the French treated the Algerians like crap. I can explain this, though. When they treated American blacks better than we did they got superiority points. Not so with their own (colonial) blacks, so why bother?
Now where was I? No wonder these things take so long to write. OK, there we are. Frank stands to go to the washroom. Humongous rises to join him, but is called off. Which seems pretty strange, as Gratz earlier today attempted to kill them, an incident then followed with a raid one of Gratz’s ‘best’ places. So you’d tend to think this would be exactly the time that they’d be on guard. Still and all, Frank removes his tuxedo jacket before leaving the table, presumably so that we can see the squibs going off when he gets shot. (Oops, sorry.) Sure enough, once he’s in the john, the guy with the pistol enters and shoots him. The gun makes little noise, which is explained by the silencer, and no discernible muzzle flashes, which isn’t. Mortally wounded, Frank starts making some rather goofy “Ablahwhyyoublahblah” kind of sounds and jumps at the gunman. Meanwhile, Humungous apparently hears something and starts on back.
The struggle carries the two into the hallway. Meanwhile, a second gunman appears and fires at Humungous. These bullets are magically stopped by a quite obviously inadequate wooden table Humungous lifts as a shield. The table is then used as a battering ram. Humungous hits the guy so hard that his semi-automatic pistol flies into the air and lands as a revolver. Oddly, rather than rush to Frank’s assistance, Humongous stops to angrily pummel the second gunman. This allows the first to disentangle himself from Frank and get the drop on Humungous. He’s saved, however, when Sugar Pop magically acquires a pistol from somewhere. (I mean, really, he wouldn’t have been carrying one and he wasn’t close enough to the events to grab a supposedly dropped weapon, so what the heck?)
Our Hero fires, and I guess we’re not supposed to notice that Humungous is standing directly between him and his target. Even after the assassin falls, Sugar Pop continues to robotically shoot. I guess we’re also not supposed to notice that, with the tables that lie between Sugar Pop and the man’s prostrate body, he would no longer be able to see the guy, much less shoot him. Oh, and remember how the film earlier employed sparklers to simulate muzzle flashes? Here they instead attempt to cover for the lack of blank cartridges by having the flashes from Sugar Pop’s pistol digitally inserted (!). The problem is that we can see that no spent shells are being ejected, as would happen were the gun actually being fired. If you’re really anal, you can go to slow-mo and see that the flashes don’t even correspond with the trigger pulls.
Cut to a funeral scene right out of an Ed Wood movie. The set, such as it is, consists of a big room sporting a bare concrete floor and walls covered with black sheets. And yes, it’s all foggy in there. Three elementary crosses fashioned from unvarnished wooden planks stand to one side, while the actor playing Frank lies in a coffin. Here we watch a various acts, such as a dance troupe and a black gospel choir, doing their things. These elements, along with some soloists, are edited together in a series of very short takes, like in a music video. A really, really bad music video, true. “To everyone’s astonishment,” Sugar Pop narrates, “Frank left a will. It consisted of three sentences. ‘Everything I have is now Sugar Pop’s. Sugar Pop, take care of Ma Gram. And throw me a happy funeral.'” Now, I’m not a probate attorney or anything, but I’m not sure that this would constitute a legally valid will.
I’d also like to point that we only occasionally get even a hint that any kind of law enforcement apparatus exists on this world. You’d think the public execution of a major drug lord would bring some kind of federal agency – or maybe just a cop of some sort — sniffing around, but you’d be wrong. While we will later hear reference to the police made on the ‘news,’ we almost never see anyone not directly connected with Sugar Pop enter into the movie. Anyway, we cut outside to the Chia-headed TV reporter Roberta Gordon, reporting on this *cough* “big, expensive, gaudy funeral.” Certainly the cheesy flower arrangements, arrayed upon cheap Styrofoam cutouts, don’t add to this illusion. (Meanwhile, the idea that the interiors we’ve just seen represent the inside of a church is ludicrous.) Actually, the only evidence of any money being blown is the lovely horse-drawn funeral carriage used to transport Frank’s coffin.
Here we get the movie’s honestly most repulsive bit. Gordon walks over to interview Dr. Khalid Muhammand, a real-life functionary in Louis Farrakhan’s racist Fruit of Islam church. Gordon asks why the funeral of a drug dealer would receive such a respectful attendance from the public. This allows Dr. Muhammad to spew some garbage about how the black is God’s “Original Man,” and that any sin he commits is learned from the White Devil over the “last four hundred years.” (As another noted theologian might have responded, “Well, isn’t that con-veeen-ient.”) Apparently we’re not supposed to notice that by substituting a few words this could be Hitler talking about Aryans and Jews.
Besides, we then cut to Gratz in his office, which is still darkened despite it being midday. Gratz proceeds to give a profane, racist commentary while watching the proceedings on TV. (The funniest bit here is that he’s supposed to be talking to an associate off-camera, who quite patently isn’t there.) I guess his rants are supposed to somehow offset Muhammad’s comments, although the latter’s utterings are in fact treated with great respect and deference. Besides which, Gratz is now being portrayed as an exaggerated Italian gombah, sporting slick-backed hair and chewing on a toothpick, but why confuse things by even going into that?
Anyway. After the funeral Sugar Pop goes to visit Ma Gram. In one of the most repulsive sights I’ve seen lately, the elderly woman is sitting in bed wearing a translucent robe that leaves nothing to our horrified imaginations. She looks like she’s been cast in a racier black version of Sextette. Noticing Sugar Pop’s entrance, she tosses him a shiny new apple, apparently kept on hand for her upcoming parable. (Did I mention that Ma Gram sports the kind of fingernails that would have Howard Hughes whistling in admiration?) “Open it,” she asks, not an instruction often heard in relationship to a piece of fruit. He tugs on it, though, and somehow manages to pull it cleanly in two. “It’s half rotten,” he notes. “You never would have guessed it, huh?” Ma Gram agrees. (How did she know? Does she have X-Ray vision or something?) Anyway, this all turns into a speech about how Sugar Pop should stay out of the drug business. Of course, Sugar Pop can’t do that until Frank is avenged. An Original Man’s gotta do what an Original Man’s gotta do. The scene ends with a hug and then with Ma Gram pulling off her knit cap to reveal her shiny bald pate. She looks like Scatman Crothers after an all-too-apparent breast enhancement operation.
After this Sugar Pop rides around the city on his moped and ruminates on Frank’s fate. He eventually ends up at Twyla’s, to partake of the most primal form of grief therapy, if you know what I mean and I think you do. By insistently rapping on the door he’s able to get someone to answer it in five seconds, which seems pretty good, considering that it’s “four o’clock in the morning” and all. The darkened living room is packed with folks, apparently so as to set up a ‘humorous’ line when Our Hero steps on someone. Told that it’s only Sugar Pop, a voice responds, “I don’t care if it’s cereal, he stepped on my nuts!” (The voice is surprisingly robust, considering this supposed chain of events.) Now, admittedly, he flubbed the joke, as Sugar Pop(s) is a cereal. What he should have said was something like, “I don’t care if it’s Cap’n Crunch!” or “I don’t care if it’s Count Chocula!” Still, it’s almost a joke. Eventually Sugar Pop manages to stumble into Twyla’s room. He tells her that she’s moving in with him at Frank’s old house, and to bring her family along too.
We cut to a nattily dressed Sugar Pop exiting the limo. “As I stood up out of the limo, I felt a weird surge of strength,” he narrates, “diluted with an incomprehensible sense of dread.” Now, I’m not Sigmund Freud or anything, but perhaps this ‘incomprehensible sense of dread’ is triggered by the fact that he’s adorning himself with all the symbols of the thing that got his brother brutally slain a couple of days ago. That’s my theory, anyway. Sugar Pop enters a (yes) smoky disco that in no way resembles the Frank’s nightclub we saw earlier, but which leads to the same room we saw the Knights of the Round Table gathered in before. Sugar Pop make his appearance in the required tribal robes. Apparently he’s planning on taking Frank’s place in the organization, which makes his earlier ‘sense of dread’ seem, in fact, even more comprehensible.
The announcement of Sugar Pop’s ascension, although supported by Humungous, is not without controversy. Rock, in particular (and as you’d suspect), is chagrined. He indicates this by refusing to do the salute thing. This he follows by noting, “Man, you’re just Frank’s little brother. You don’t know nothing about The Life.” Which, to be fair, is pretty much on the mark. Heck, Our Hero has yet to graduate from high school. Nor does Sugar Pop’s stated response, “What’s to know?” seem calculated to ease the doubts of his peers. “Look, we’ve got ourselves a business, here,” he continues. “And the purpose of any business is to make money. We’ll make more cash than you ever dreamed of.” I would have imagined that people enter a career in Organized Crime for more reasons than just money, but what do I know? In any case, he’d better hope not, because his plan is to get the organization strictly into legit businesses within the next two years.
Hearing enough of this admittedly sketchy and farfetched plan, Rock and his underlings pull their pieces and attempt a little coup. Sugar Pop proves his mettle, though, when the barrels of Uzis poke out of air vents high in the wall and start spraying bullets around the teeny, tiny room (Sparklers Alert!). Miraculously they manage this without killing everyone, or even anyone. Actually, given the awkward angle at which the guns protrude from the vents – and where are the people manning them standing, anyway? – I don’t think you could even pretend to control where your bullets were going. In fact, given Rock’s position almost directly under the guns, I’d say he’s below their field of fire in any case. Whatever. Outmaneuvered, Rock and his supporters drop their weapons. Humungous starts to take care of them permanently, but is called off by Sugar Pop. Then we see that it was Twyla and her sisters manning the Uzis. This seems odd. Earlier, Sugar Pop didn’t want Twyla to even do lookout duty. Now he’s made her a gunman? Whatever.
Here’s where it all comes together – which means, where it all comes apart. What’s Sugar Pop’s secret plan to hold on to his newly acquired power? If you suspect it involves (finally) those ultra-lights we saw earlier in the movie, well, good guess. Sugar Pop takes Humungous, Christy and Neckbone — the guy in the wheelchair, remember? — out to the Exeter training fields. See, it’s summer vacation, so everyone’s gone but all the equipment has been left behind. Which, I’m sure, is pretty much how it works in real military academies across the nation. Anyway, Sugar Pop starts, in an agonizingly long sequence, to make his underlings ace ultra-light pilots. This is accompanied by the movie’s “Streetâ€¦.Wars. Streetâ€¦Wars” theme song. The oddest thing is that we are shown that you partly control these things via foot pedals, so I’m not sure how Neckbone manages to fly one. “Up there I won’t need any legs,” he cries, despite the evident inaccuracy of that remark. I guess we’re just not supposed to think about it.
This scene is, unfortunately, played for its purported humor. For instance, Humungous asks if you don’t a license to fly one of these. Ha, see, he’s a crack dealer but is worried about flying without a license. Of course, he’s also – ho, ho — afraid of flying. Har har, he’s this big guy and all, but doesn’t like flying the planes. And look, he doesn’t fly it very well either! Hoo-hoo! Meanwhile, the scene’s biggest laugh is inadvertent, arising when Sugar explains that attaching Uzis to the ultra-lights will transform them into “fighter planes.” Oh, yeah, sure, I can see how that would work. Oh, wait, that’s not the funniest line after all. It’s when Humungous replies, “I can relate. Whoever controls the skies, controls the streets.” Meanwhile, Neckbone’s situation is milked for pathos; the guy who can’t walk learning what freedom is like and all that.
Next we learn the second part of Sugar Pop’s master strategy. Jerome, a white friend from Exeter, is called upon. Jerome’s father has a seat on the Stock Exchange, as many White Devils do. Sugar Pop thus asks his classmate to set up investments to launder the organization’s money. See, Jerome shares his father’s name. Therefore, the thinking goes, it’ll be easy for him to invest millions of dollars in cash in the stock market without anyone paying much attention. (This is what we’re told, anyway. Somehow I doubt this is how it really works.) In this way the funds can be moved into more licit endeavors, per Sugar Pop’s plans to go legit. Now, I for one had trouble believing that this Jerome guy would so casually agree to commit major-league felonies solely because a school chum asked him to. But there you go. It’s not what you know; it’s whom you know. I especially when Sugar Pop tells him, “Your lily-white ass is covered.” Huh? How is his ass covered? He’s the one pumping millions in cash into the stock market. Oh, well, let’s just go with it or we’ll be here all night.
(Let’s not even examine how, as a plan to ease the gang out of the drug trade, investing in the stock market leaves much to be desired. Certainly the notion that Sugar Pop can reap a higher rate of return off stocks than off of crack, with its markup in the thousands of percent, seems pretty darn unlikely.)
Arrangements completed, Sugar Pop and his posse head out for an evening at the inevitable smoky nightclub. There they sit at a table marked ‘Reserved’ with the equally inevitable shoddy sign. The movie’s consistent, you’ve got to give it that. At Christy’s invitation, they dance along to a rap song called, and I kid you not, “The Rooster.” This largely involves moving your head back and forth like aâ€¦well, you get it. In a further example of Fanaka’s technique of ironic (or something) intercutting, we cut from the dance to Rock and his henchmen raiding Sugar Pop’s house. Once past the door, they shoot down everybody, including all of Twyla’s relatives, kids included. How charming. Here’s something I already knew about the crack trade, but which Sugar Pop could have used to his advantage: When in the midst of a drug war, you should probably have somebody guarding your house and/or family. Perhaps there were supposed to be some here, but the film couldn’t afford to show us any of them. In any case, five guys shouldn’t be able to storm in and blow away a rival’s family without sustaining some casualties, or at least some injuries. Oh, and, Sugar Pop? Security gates in front of your house are nice, too. Many drug lords swear by them.
This all went on long enough that I eventually fast-forwarded a bit, something I only do in the most extreme cases. Eventually, though, the Rooster Song/Mass Murder sequence ends and the party returns to their table. To our, uh, delight, “I Want to Sex You Down,” is heard again here. Boy, it’s even better the second time. Thanks. As you’d expect, though, the party’s quickly cut short when the bad news reaches them. Rushing back home, they inevitably arrive just in time for Twyla to raise the sheet on a stretcher and behold her sister’s body. (Didn’t Twyla and her siblings consider this possibility when they agreed to act as gunmen for Sugar Pop? I mean, the phrase ‘occupational hazard’ calls itself to mind here.) Amusingly, Our Hero holds the hysterical Twyla and keeps saying “Everything’s gonna be all right, I promise.” What the heck is that supposed to mean, Sugar Pop? Are you going to bring all her relatives back to life via Voodoo or something?
Coming to the conclusion that Rock must be “Satan himself” (on the somewhat naÃ”ve grounds that “Only The Devil would blow away women and children like that” – and this from a crack dealer!), Sugar vows revenge. We cut from his looking over Ma Gram’s dead body to his gang camped out on a (that’s right) foggy beach. A mournful trumpet wails as the camera slooow-ly wanders around and showcases everyone’s Grief Face. Finally we catch up with Sugar Pop, who’s tossing an apple up and down. See, because Ma Gram did that thing with the apple earlier, and, uhâ€¦well, you know, it’s symbolic or something.
Cut to a small formation of ultra-lights cleaving the evening sky. If you thought Ator was cool that time he popped up in a hang glider, well, this is like that, only times four! As you might expect, this image heralds what they’ve been setting up from the beginning of the picture: Sugar Pop and his commandos will use these flimsy contraptions to rain Death from the Skies upon his enemies, thus bringing woe and lamentation unto them. Of course, there’s a reason no one’s ever really tried such an assault in real life. Of especial relevance is the fact that ultra lights travel in a comparatively slow fashion, and are moreover rather ponderous to turn. In other words, your opponents couldn’t hope for a better target. Second, the odds of hitting anything from one of those things seems fairly unlikely, certainly less probable than being hit yourself as you waft by. Altogether, this is along of the lines of using a formation of golf carts to stage a drive-by shooting. And none of what follows caused me to revise my opinions any.
As they head towards their date with destiny, Christy croons “Oooo-wee! If those drag queens could only see me now!” Because, you know, that’s the sort of thing a transsexual might well say in such a situation. Watching all this, I began to get the notion that the entire film was built around this one idea. “Hey,” Jamaa Fanaka might well have mused, “what if a bunch of guys attacked some opponents from slow moving, lumbering flying golf carts?” (OK, those may not be the exact same words he thought.) And, of course, who hasn’t had this thought? Mr. Fanaka’s just the first one to actually go out there and put it on film.
From out the night sky appears Jerome, ready to join the party. How he managed to find the others is left to our imaginations. I’m also not sure how these guys are supposed to hear each other over the noise of their engines, especially since they don’t appear to be carrying any radio equipment. In any case, they now kick off their first aerial attack. These sequences are, unsurprisingly, shot in pretty similar fashion. Sugar Pop and his henchmen drop a smoke bomb or two. (I guess this is supposed to hide the approach of their ‘ships,’ although you’d still be able to hear their engines approaching.) Then he and his Warriors of the Air swoop through the smoke – in sequences that were pretty evidently filmed separately from the rest of the scene – with guns a’blazing. (Well, sparklers and computer generated flame bursts a’blazing, anyway.)
Now, I’m seen many a strange and unlikely sight over the years. Still, watching their foes blasting away with shotguns and Uzis and yet somehow missing the unwieldy craft flying leisurely just above their heads is right up there. (The fact that the planes are continuously represented in ‘dramatic’ slow-mo only makes them seem all the more vulnerable.) Meanwhile, the best Fanaka can do to make this ‘plausible’ is to regularly show bullets ricocheting off the thin metal siding and windshields of the planes’ tiny cockpits. We might buy this if the bullets were being chucked up by hand, but fired out of a gun? I think not. Also nifty is how Our Heroes’ unknowing targets are shown walking out onto the street while nonchalantly carrying their long arms along at their sides. Apparently, they stroll down the street with shotguns and submachine guns ready at all times. It must be said, though: If you think this sort of scene is neat, then you’ve come to the right place. For instance, we silhouetted planes gliding through a bank of smoke at least two dozen times over the next ten minutes. We also get a heapin’ helping of casually obvious animated muzzle flashes and ricochet sparks. In any case, all four opponents go down, although they manage to take out Neckbone. (Who’s so tough he can yell out, “I’ve been hit!” after taking a full shotgun blast directly in the chest.) Since the filmmakers can’t afford to actually destroy an ultra-light, it’s flying trailing smoke and flying offscreen.
We cut back to Roberta Gordon, who is, it’s now apparent, about the only TV reporter this city boasts. Here, at least, her hair is in a more or less non-frightening configuration. As a few extras run about in a failed attempt to suggest panic, she announces that “our police department’s worst nightmare” has come true. Presumably this somehow revolves around a really bad movie being made somewhere in their jurisdiction. More impressive is her assertion that “young local crack dealers are battling from the skies, for control of the city’s illegal drug franchise.” This gathering of this information is most impressive, given that there seems no possible way in which anyone could know who these armed aviators are. “Fighter planes are in the hands of our city’s criminal element,” she continues. “They’ve got their own Ghetto air force!”
The odd(er) thing is that when we cut back to the ‘fight,’ the guys are still strafing at their original four targets. This means that the supposedly large police and media presence has been mobilized to the scene in the three or four minutes – to be generous – since the attack began. Well, they certainly can’t be faulted on their response time. Eventually, though, as you might have expected, Team Sugar Pop prevails. Of course, it helps when your targets step out from behind protected positions to stand openly in the street and wait for you to shoot them down.
Back to the on-the-street news report. Another fabulous bit is had with the appearance of a none-too-convincing police ‘captain.’ He explains to Roberta that they have adopted a containment policy here, as “no innocent people are in the line of fire.” First, I’m not sure how you’d ‘contain’ people in airplanes, even these ones. Second, given the racial politics of the day, I can’t imagine a representative of a major city, especially a white representative, talking publicly about there being “no innocent people” in a black neighborhood. I mean, you’d just be asking for a riot, wouldn’t you?
There’s more to his explanation, though. It’s ‘illegal’ to arm police helicopters (?), he continues. (Presumably this is under the Fanaka Act, the bill that made it illegal to do anything which would make the plots of a Jamaa Fanaka film even more untenable than they are anyway.) Moreover, if they “brought in heavy artillery (!),” presumably 15″ guns or some such, “many innocent people could get killed.” This last also doubtless explains why he fails even to address the option of tactical nuclear weapons being employed. Not that we should think him uncomfortable with the situation here, though. “What we have here is a bunch of animals killing each other off,” he exclaims, “and good riddance!” When they’re done, he continues, “we’ll move in and we’ll pick up the pieces.” I’m telling you, this guy really needs to attend a media sensitivity workshop or two.
We cut to Sugar Pop in a room containing a map of the city. He’s laying out the battle plan to “break up every neighborhood crack house in the city.” It says much about the film that we can’t really tell if:
- This is meant to be a flashback to events before the raid.
- This is some time after the initial raid.
- This is a scene mistakenly edited in out of its correct order.
Now, as I understand it, crack houses are usually fortified to some extent or another. Therefore, Sugar Pop’s faith that each of his lackeys can be assigned individual crack houses to take out is somewhat enigmatic. Especially since we will not, needless to say, be witnessing any of these no doubt spectacular assaults. Moreover, I’m not sure what the order, “We’re gonna meet up at Willowbrook, and that’s where we’re gonna split up,” means. If you’re already split up to start with then whyâ€¦oh, never mind. Meanwhile, I can only assume that Sugar Pop’s not in much of a hurry, since his plans for the evening involve a total of four designated targets. At that rate, knocking out ‘every crack house in the city,’ could take a while.
Here Christy runs in to make an announcement, sporting a mustache that he doesn’t have at any other point in the movie. This is sort of why film production crews will often opt to hire a Continuity person. Anyway, it turns out that Rock has seized control of Frank’s, the Round Table’s headquarters (to what purpose, I’m sure I don’t know) and killed Big Daddy. Apparently Fanaka worried that if he didn’t have Rock commit some fresh outrage every ten minutes or so we’d cease to care about whether Sugar Pop reaped his revenge upon him. (Actually, where the director went wrong was in forgetting that one must care in the first place before one can lose interest.) Sugar Pop mobilizes his forces and soon they are winging over to the club.
Here we basically get a replay of the first aerial assault, complete with smoke grenades. To be fair, though, this one is a bit goofier. For instance, here’s there a big panicking crowd on hand, and yet Sugar Pop manages to mow down Rock’s gunmen – again, while spraying sub-machine gun fire from the air and through the smoke — without hitting any civilians. I also have to wonder why Rock didn’t leave more than two guys to guard the place, since he must have known that Sugar Pop was going to rush on over. Ah, well, for lack of a nail. In any case, Team Sugar Pop lands their planes in the street (!) and goes inside to find Big Daddy’s body, left sitting in a chair with a rude note on his chest. Now here’s an odd thing. Back when this second assault began, the street they cruised their planes down looked remarkably like the one seen immediately prior to their first ultra-light attack. Of course, that was in a completely different area of town, so I guess it’s just an amazing coincidence. Either that or The City was designed by William Levitt.
This is all followed by another TV report, this time with a whole other reporter and everything. Not that she’s much better than Roberta, though. For instance, being an actual witness to the previous two attacks, I’m not sure I’d employ the phrase “blitzkrieg approach” to describe them. Moreover, the idea that all this shooting can keep occurring without “a single innocent individual” being harmed is obviously ludicrous. Then too, the suggestion of an ongoing series of such attacks raises other questions. To wit, why have neither Rock’s forces or the police have been able to formulate any sort of countermeasure for Sugar Pop’s small squad of ultra-lights. For instance, you could place snipers in the windows of buildings near potential targets. Or you could create protective shooting blinds for men armed with shotguns to blow the slow-moving planes from the sky. You could trigger some powerful lights and blind the attackers as they approach. Hell, you could string up nets or wire and entangle them when they dive down to attack. And that’s after about ten seconds of thought.
We see a further montage of various raids. (We’ve still got thirteen minutes to get through.) I especially like how the first two guys they corner are again standing in front of Frank’s. You’d think Rock would either abandon the place or guard it properly. Meanwhile, we see man-in-the-street interviews that reveal a growing public support for the efforts of Our Heroes. Which, if I really need to point it out, is a complete and utter rip-off of Death Wish. I also have to wonder about how the police have failed to put together the whole ‘brother of recently dead crack dealer who went to military school where he piloted ultra-lights’ thing yet. Especially since Neckbone and a plane went down in the initial attack. Even if Neckbone didn’t have a police record tying him in to Frank, and hence Sugar Pop, you’d certainly think they’d be able to trace the ultra-light from the machine’s remains.
Yet things continue to go well for Sugar Pop and company. “We quickly gained control of the streets through air supremacy,” he narrates. This, to our disbelief, leads to yet another raid sequence. The first such sequence was pretty dopey and boring to start with, and this ongoing repetition isn’t helping the situation any. Perhaps realizing this, they quickly cut away from the ‘action’ to a Huh, what happened? shot of Sugar Pop flying over Rock’s car (?). (Being of a certain age, I can perhaps be forgiven for giggling as I recalled Fred McMurray buzzing his rival with his flying Model T in The Absent Minded Professor.) This leads to a less than suspenseful shootout, especially notable for the cartoon ‘ricochets’ off of the hood of Rock’s jeep. Exit Rock.
We cut to Gratz watching the news from his office. You know, you’d think the city’s biggest crack dealer wouldn’t (apparently) live in his office, in which he constantly watches an old nineteen inch television set with all the lights off. Anyway, he has time to rattle off a couple more offensive racial slurs before he goes to light up a cigarette. The illumination from his lighter exposes his position and he’s shot down by Sugar Pop, who’s tooling around outside the building in his plane.
His revenge complete, it’s time to address the future. Luckily, the authorities have never figured out who these flying assassins were. We get a last expository newscast that explains that this mysterious mastermind, whoever he may be, has promised that there will be no more crack houses in the city. (Yeah, there’s a void that’s sure to remain unfilled.) We end our story with Sugar Pop and Twyla getting hitched. Ah, a happy ending. Of course, by now any ending would be happy, at least for the long-suffering viewer of this film.
Oops, wouldn’t want to skip the comical credits, though. These are backed by an extremely shoestring performance of the ‘Street Wars’ theme song. This is shot, unsurprisingly, in such a manner as to theoretically double as a music video with which to promote the film. This, assuming that JVC, or the Jabootu Video Channel, ever gets funded. Said performance basically entails a not noticeably talented female singer rapping out some desultory lyrics as little smoke bombs go off nearby. Meanwhile, the copious humor fostered by her failed attempts to pose and strut in a tough ‘street’ fashion pale next to the section of the credits that offers “A torrid salute to African-American filmmakers, the watershed 91/19s.” (?) In an act of almost unprecedented gall, Fanaka uses this as an opportunity to add his name to a roster that includes such black filmmakers as Charles Burnett, Mario Van Peebles, Robert Townsend, Bill Duke, Spike Lee (!), John Singleton, Ernest Dickerson and more.
After that I really don’t have anything further to add.
If I’ve failed to convey any aspect of the film, it’s probably its unmitigated cheapness. Numerous shots of characters, again and again, are filmed against plain black backgrounds. Moreover, abundant footage of various weapons firing was similarly filmed. The generic nature of the results allows them to be cut into the film whenever required, all without having to worry about whether it ‘matches’ a particular scene or not. This, I must report, is a technique I haven’t seen used since Doris Wishman employed it in a much more sparing fashion in her two Chesty Morgan movies.
Also, as I have mentioned, literally comical levels of dry ice fog are employed over and over in none-too successful attempts to disguise the rather frugal nature of the various sets. There’s the movie’s nearly trademark signage, apparently created with various cans of house paint from the director’s garage and a pack of colored markers procured from the local supermarket. And the computer inserted smoke, muzzle flashes and ricochet effects are second only to the ongoing use of sparklers to suggest gunfire. Then there are the more basic problems. The script is moronic, the acting ranges from stilted to outrageously poor, even the sound is bad. Even on DVD I could often scarcely make out what was being said. This is one film where English language subtitles would have been much appreciated.
Also worth another mention is that, if you are planning to build an entire movie around one central image, it probably shouldn’t entail guys in ultra-lights conducting armed raids on their enemies. As a minor plot device it’s marginally silly, as proven by similar scenes featuring hang gliders in Ator the Blade Master – a.k.a. Cave Dwellers — and John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A. As a film’s central plot device it’s disastrous.
To be fair, director Fanaka deserves some small amount of credit for endeavoring to film some sequences in a stylish manner. He was also obviously trying for some genuine depth of characterization here. Be that as it may, however, he also richly warrants brickbats for failing to recognize the lack of resources and talent which doom these same efforts. In a similar fashion, his decision to mount the production on such an obviously inadequate budget is both inspiring and, at the same time, somewhat appalling. In this manner he recalls such earlier giants of the field as Ed Wood, Jr., and Phil Tucker. Which, at least here, credits him greatly. Mr. Fanaka, if you’re out there, I await your next project with all due ardor.
What does the film’s sponsor, Joe Bannerman think? Find out here.