A b-movie doesn’t have to be “good” in the conventional critical sense to inspire affection in fans of the form. TNT Jackson is a notable example of this principle in action. This blaxploitation-meets-kung-fu genre-blend was made by profilic Filipino director Cirio Santiago, a filmmaker notorious for cranking out drive-in fare as quickly as possible. His movies were always no-frills, disposable fare designed purely for profit but when the right concept clicked into place, they could be fun cinematic junk food. TNT Jackson fits this bill: it ain’t “good” but it’s fun in its own loopy way.
At 72 minutes, TNT Jackson represents the b-movie stripped to its barest essentials. It opens with a man being killed by a gang of drug dealers led by Charlie (Stan Shaw) in Hong Kong. This sets the stage for his sister, Diana “TNT” Jackson (Playboy Playmate Jeanne Bell) to come to Hong Kong looking for him. She’s got kung-fu skills and a bad attitude so she fits into this rough-and-tumble ghetto scene just fine. Charlie immediately takes notice of TNT and she flirts on and off with him as she tries to get info about the drug ring he works with.
It seems there is trouble within Charlie’s group as they’ve started losing shipments and there might be a rat in the group. Since this trouble began with TNT’s arrival, she comes under the suspicion of gang leader Sid (Ken Metcalfe) and she is forced to put her fighting skills to use. When she realizes Charlie was responsible for her brother’s death, she plots her own iron-fisted revenge that coincides with a major drug deal. However, that revenge is complicated by Elaine (Pat Anderson), a fed who has secretly infiltrated the drug ring.
If that synopsis sounds somewhat sensible, rest assured that it doesn’t play out that way on-screen. TNT Jackson is cut so tightly that it frequently becomes non-sensical, stripping out characterization and any sort of plot-clarifying story beats to get to the fighting and the nudity. Santiago directs the film like he’s trying to set a land-speed record, resulting in a lot of awkward post-synch dubbing and periodic continuity gaffes (like the way Bell’s panties change color in one key fight sequence). He also expects you to believe that the Philippines is actually Hong Kong and that his mostly Filipino supporting cast is actually Chinese.
It doesn’t help that the fight choreography is mostly hopeless — Bell looks like she’s doing some sort of weird interpretive dance when fighting and is unconvincingly doubled by a man for many key action moments. The same could be said for Anderson, who has a hysterically awful fight scene around a staircase in which she delivers some of the least convincing karate kicks in film history. As a result, the fighting sequences are laden with fast cutting and tricks like speeding up the footage for certain moves, which gives them an unintentional Benny Hill vibe.
The performances aren’t much better: Bell is better at being surly than she is at delivering lines and Metcalfe, who co-wrote the script with regular Corman actor Dick Miller, is memorably wooden as the leader of the drug ring. The one really solid performance comes from Shaw, a gifted performer who would go on to a long career as a character actor. His characterization is stock “blaxploitation badass” material but he delivers it with intensity and a swagger that is genuinely appealing — and the fact that he actually knew martial arts helps his fight scenes.
That said, don’t let the above catalogue of flaws deter you if you’re into 1970’s drive-in fare. TNT Jackson’s speed and single-mindedness make it fun in spite of its many flaws. Those nostalgic for this period will be wowed by the fashion, afros and the funky score, which was purloined from a past Santiago film, Savage. Better yet, the film sports a b-movie first in an unforgettable scene where Bell fights a gang of thugs while topless and in panties. That scene alone makes the film worth seeing, not to mention the final 15 minutes: that last reel is an amphetamine blur of hamhanded plot twists, lousy fighting and “shocking” death scenes.
In short, TNT Jackson is the kind of film that wears its cheapjack qualities as a badge of schlocky pride. It was a decent hit for New World (in fact, Santiago and Corman remade it twice more as Firecracker and Angel Fist) and has remained a goofball favorite with fans over the years. If you’re in the right mood for no-frills thrills, it will deliver the goods with a daft, distinctly 1970’s b-movie flair.