Dolemite had a lot going for it: kung fu prostitutes, a killer funk score and the inimitable presence of comedian-turned-inner-city-movie-star Rudy Ray Moore. It was missing just one thing: energy in the director’s chair. Direction for Moore’s maiden celluloid venture was handled by erstwhile character actor D’Urville Martin, who openly disliked the project and turned in minimal effort. For his second feature, Moore handed directorial duties to a young, hungry actor/theater director named Cliff Roquemore. The resulting film had equal amounts of energy on both sides of the camera – and it took the fading blaxploitation genre into new and outlandish realms.
Human Tornado begins with Dolemite (Moore) going on the
run from his southern home after a racist sheriff (J.B. Baron) catches him in
bed with the sheriff’s wife, who is coincidentally paying Dolemite for his
services as a gigolo. Dolemite and his crew flee to Los Angeles, where they
hope to go to work with Queen Bee (Lady Reed) at her successful nightclub.
Unfortunately, Dolemite’s arrival coincides with Queen
Bee getting muscled in on by Cavaletti (Herb Graham), a mobster who coerces her
support by putting a few of her employees in his personal torture chamber(!).
Dolemite sets out to help Queen Bee rescue her girls but this will put them in
danger with the mob. Meanwhile, the Sheriff shows up in L.A. with revenge on
his mind – and his efforts to rouse the local police department bring in the
involvement of local cop Blakeley (Jerry Jones).
Jones also wrote the script and like his work on Dolemite, the result is densely plotted
yet oddly episodic in structure. The story is so dense that loose ends result:
for example, Moore and Jones somehow never cross paths despite reprising their
characters from Dolemite. The
scenario is also so ambitious in terms of locations and character ensemble that
it pushes the modest production’s resources to their limit. As for Roquemore’s
direction, he’s clearly learning as he goes, making some rookie mistakes like
poor doubling for a character played by a young Ernie Hudson and a road-trip
stretch that looks like a set of hastily overdubbed camera tests.
All that said, The
Human Tornado has the same “let’s put on a show” spirit that kept
Dolemite moving – and the obvious excitement
and love that Roquemore pours into his work here gives it a high-octane energy
guaranteed to keep blaxploitation fans engaged all the way through. He treats it like a comic book brought to
life, going for eye-popping colors and kinetic camerawork/editing schemes that
create the right frame for Moore’s over-the-top persona and Jones’
everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink scripting. He makes effective use of Moore’s
familiar world of nightclubs, adding production value while ensuring the star
thrives in a comfortable setting.
Along the way, Roquemore realizes some demented yet
thoroughly inspired setpieces. In terms of action, you get a sequence that
involves shootouts, a dramatic jump off a hillside by Moore and a car chase
capped with an explosion. There’s also Perils
Of Pauline-style suspense with a little S&M kink in the torture chamber
scenes and huge kung-fu brawls that allow Moore to show off his own satirical
style of the martial arts involving sped-up action, Esperanto-style gibberish
vocalization and cartoonish jowl-shaking.
Roquemore also weaves in a stronger level of sex,
including a funny scene where Dolemite warms up for coitus with some pre-sex
work out routines and an amazing moment where Dolemite hypnotizes the gangster’s
wife, leading to a lusty fantasy sequence that involves her cavorting on a
kiddie show-style set with a slide, giant letter blocks and a toybox that
produces naked, muscular black men! This
scene is like David Lynch teamed up with Melvin Van Peebles to direct a segment
for Romper Room and alone is worth
the price of admission.
As expected, Moore rules the roost in this psychedelic barrage of sex, violence, comedy and soul: whether he’s romancing the ladies or performing his own unique interpretation of kung fu, his enjoyment of each moment is contagious. He’s even good natured enough to poke fun at his unlikely sex symbol status (the aforementioned exercise before sex scene). He gets good support from Reed and Hudson, paying his dues here like he would also do in Penitentiary II, and Moore’s comedian pal Jimmy Lynch makes an impression as a mouthy sidekick. In a truly unique touch, one of the female performers who is kidnapped is played by Java, a legendary transsexual entertainer – a very progressive touch in a ’70s blaxploitation flick.
In short, The Human Tornado is the movie you picture in your mind’s eye when you think about Dolemite. It’s a budget-priced yet energetic blaxploitation fantasia where the evils of racism, organized crime interfering with black showbiz and white people sexualizing black people while keeping them down are vanquished by a wise-cracking superstud showman and his resourceful band of self-styled entertainers. If you can’t see the joy in that, you need to ponder your exploitation flick priorities.
Blu-Ray Notes: As with Dolemite, Vinegar Syndrome has issued the definitive blu-ray/DVD edition for this title, boasting an excellent transfer and a handful of cool supplements, including the second segment of “I, Dolemite,” a multi-part documentary about Moore’s film career.