Just for the chase scene, “Cleopatra Jones” is a must-watch
Jack Starrett’s 1973 Cleopatra Jones is a spy film, but it feels like one of the first modern superhero movies: colorful, stylish, and fun, featuring a larger-than-life champion of the people and a cartoonish supervillain. Dobson—along with Pam Grier—paved the way for action heroines like Alien’s Ripley and The Terminator’s Sarah Connor.
The film was the American woman’s answer to (and parody of) James Bond and blaxploitation movies like Shaft and Superfly—although the term “blaxploitation” is reductive and is better understood as a production cycle than an actual genre.
Like James Bond, special agent Cleopatra Jones doesn’t need a secret identity. Everyone knows her, and her jurisdiction extends “from Ankara Turkey to Watts Tower, baby.” She can do kung fu in bell bottoms and bad boots. (Dobson requested fashion designer Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo to design her wardrobe for the film.) She’s respected by Captain Lou Crawford (Dan Frazer), the only good cop on the force, she’s beloved by her neighbors, and she’s got the coolest ride in town.
Cleopatra drives a silver and black customized 1973 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray C3 with a secret compartment for a MAC-11, grenades, and a Colt Diamondback. Her license plate reads CLEO. When one of the neighborhood kids finds out the car has a telephone, he calls it “a phonebooth on mag wheels.” And when Cleo gets out of the car, a gullwing top opens over the drivers side door so that her 6-foot-2 frame can exit with style and ease.
Cleopatra’s story begins in Turkey where she authorizes the demolition of a poppy field worth $30 million of heroin. It belongs to a drug lord named Mommy, played by Shelley Winters, who clearly relished this unusual choice in roles for her, hamming it up in a bright red wig and furs. Mommy retaliates by soliciting the racist cops on her payroll to raid B&S House, the drug rehab center that Cleopatra runs with her man Reuben (Bernie Casey). The police shut it down and arrest their friend, the recovering addict Jimmy Beeker, after planting drugs on him. Cleopatra is forced to return to Los Angeles to exonerate her friend, and clean up Mommy’s mess.
“The film was originally conceived as a serious anti-drug film,” said co-writer Max Julien in the documentary Mackin’ Ain’t Easy. Dobson herself said her character is “defending an important freedom for her people: the freedom to exist without drugs.”
Cleopatra Jones is hell on wheels, and her enemies call her “10 miles of bad road.” When the film’s chase begins, Cleopatra’s just put in an eight-track tape, and composer J.J. Johnson’s music begins to play. Cleo notices Mommy’s henchmen tailing her in a 1970 Ford Galaxie and a 1967 Ford Mustang, and she brakes suddenly, sending them hurtling forward as she takes a sharp turn. The goons reroute as Cleopatra gracefully maneuvers away, and the chase is on.
Mommy’s henchmen spend this entire chase looking worried and showing off their ineptitude—at one point, the Mustang and the Galaxie crash into each other. Zap (Joe Tornatore) hangs out of the Mustang’s window, machine gun in hand, firing constantly, yet failing to hit Cleopatra. The Galaxie collides with a TV repair van, and flips on its side. Cleopatra leads the goons into the L.A. River—more of a concrete channel actually—where she drives along its angled bank, perhaps an inspiration for Spectre’s Rome chase, which pit Bond’s Aston Martin against Mr. Hinx’s Jaguar along the bank of the Tiber. Cleo glides along, sending plumes of water into the air and faces of the goons behind her.
The Ford Galaxie and Cleo’s Corvette play a game of chicken along the river bank, the camera cutting frantically between cars as they hurtle toward each other. Cleopatra swerves at the last minute, and the Galaxie tumbles into the basin. The Mustang follows as she exits the L.A. River in downtown Los Angeles. But Cleopatra effortlessly evades them and exposes the incompetence of her pursuers, who ultimately crash into portable toilets and get hit by a tsunami of garbage—human waste coated by human waste. Toilet paper covers the Mustang, and Zap ineffectively dabs his face with it. Cleopatra laughs as she drives off.
Cleopatra Jones’ chase evokes Bullitt and To Live and Die in L.A., preceding the latter by 12 years, but covering a similar side of L.A.: this isn’t the glamorous, glimmering Hollywood we usually see in movies, but the real Los Angeles, a kind of industrial wasteland of warehouses, overpasses, empty lots, and railroad tracks. Somewhere in the no man’s land of downtown L.A. the goons are outmatched and outclassed: Cleo knows her city, and she’s a superior, more elegant, more intelligent driver. The chase may not rival the ambition and tension of The French Connection, but it surpasses it in pure fun, as well as the pleasure of watching Cleopatra beat her enemies and look unfazed and fashionable doing it. Cleo never loses her cool.
Cleopatra Jones culminates in a showdown in an auto junkyard: Cleopatra and the B&S House against Mommy and her goons. Cleopatra kicks Mommy’s ass, and Reuben takes down the dirtiest cop on the force, commenting simply, “Protect and serve? Shit.” But Cleopatra Jones’ work is never done, and by the end of the film, she’s leaving on another mission. Reuben asks, “How long this time, baby?” and Cleopatra answers, “Until it’s finished.” The folks from B&S House and the police captain shout, “Right on!” in unison as Cleo rides away in her Corvette en route to another adventure.