Little did I know, when I was compiling photos of Jim Kelly in ENTER THE DRAGON this morning for my update on today’s New York Asian Film Festival screenings with a smile on my face, that I would have to be typing these words: Beloved martial artist and film legend Jim Kelly has died at the too-young age of 67.
For what he’s given the world, Jim Kelly deserves to live another forty years at least, to become an ancient White Lotus priest with a long beard and longer eyebrows. We should have to scale a mountaintop to seek out his knowledge, but instead, here we are, with this sad news today.
I’m certainly not the best-equipped member of the Daily Grindhouse team to eulogize Jim Kelly; I’m just the one nearest a computer at the moment. I’m sure our fearless leader could weigh in with a more detailed and knowing tribute, as could Outlaw Vern. But I love Jim Kelly too. He’s my favorite of the heroes in ENTER THE DRAGON, and that’s a monumental trio including Bruce Lee and John Saxon. Jim Kelly was undeniably mean and unfukitable, but he was also funny and cool. Producer Fred Weintraub recruited Jim Kelly to co-star in that classic film out of Kelly’s dojo in LA. Jim Kelly was a multi-talented athlete who played football and ran track, but of course distinguished himself on a world-class level in karate. ENTER THE DRAGON justifiably put Jim Kelly on the global map. BLACK BELT JONES, which reteamed him with ENTER THE DRAGON director Robert Clouse and placed him in the centerpiece role, is hilarious and silly (there’s a fight scene in a car wash, let’s put it that way) but also impressive for the human dynamo that Jim Kelly was. THREE THE HARD WAY saw him sharing billing with Fred Williamson and Jim Brown, two of the biggest and best black stars of the era. That’s how big he got. He reteamed with those two guys to face off against Lee Van Cleef his own damn self in TAKE A HARD RIDE, a humongously entertaining soul-spaghetti-Western that finds Jim Kelly, playing a mute and stripped of all dialogue, reduced to his purely physical essence. He was still unforgettable.
His movie career fell off after that. He wasn’t in studio films for Warner Brothers anymore, making lower-budget films like 1977’s THE BLACK SAMURAI and 1978’s DEATH DIMENSION with directors like Al Adamson. I picked up a ratty used DVD of DEATH DIMENSION from Amoeba Records a few years back. It isn’t a film that’s been treated with love. In fact, it’s hard to find much of the Jim Kelly catalog on home video — Warner did thankfully release an Urban Action Collection in 2010 containing BLACK BELT JONES, THREE THE HARD WAY, and HOT POTATO, and I highly recommend you grab that sight-unseen if you haven’t yet had the pleasure. Fred Williamson, often a director as well as a star, made a movie called ONE DOWN, TWO TO GO with himself, Jim Brown, Richard Roundtree, Joe Spinell, and Jim Kelly, which I am dying to see but so far have been completely unable. And after that, Jim Kelly was almost entirely gone from Hollywood.
But not forgotten: Younger generations, myself included, probably first encountered the notion of Jim Kelly in Keenen Ivory Wayans’ blaxploitation parody I’M GONNA GIT YOU SUCKA (1987). The character of Kung Fu Joe, played by the underrated-in-his-own-right Steve James, is absolutely a loving homage to Jim Kelly. While Isaac Hayes, Bernie Casey, and Jim Brown appeared in that film, re-introducing them to a younger audience, Jim Kelly was absent. Likewise, Larry Cohen’s ORIGINAL GANGSTAS (1996) rallied together Richard Roundtree, Pam Grier, Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Paul Winfield, Robert Forster, and Ron O’Neal, but again, no Jim Kelly. I’m still looking for a definitive answer on why the disappearing act. Presumably he went back to teaching the martial arts. I hope it wasn’t for health reasons.
On Friday, Taimak (star of THE LAST DRAGON) tweeted out a call for prayers for Jim Kelly, noting he’d been ill. Today, the confirmation of his death has arrived. It’s a quiet calamity, the loss of a literal original. There was no one like Jim Kelly in movies before he showed up, and there have been only a couple even remotely like him since (the aforementioned Taimak and also Michael Jai White). But he was a cinematic pioneer — a star of resolute cool, cool resolve, unparalleled physicality, and absolute class.
It’s a sad day, but at least we have the movies. Go watch some of them today.
And visit Jim Kelly’s official site here.
Below: An assorted poster gallery of most of Jim Kelly’s films.
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