“Is Jim Kelly The New Bruce Lee?”, screamed the cover of ‘Deadly Hands of Kung Fu’ Magazine number 3, produced by Marvel Comics. With a beautiful cover illustrated by the legendary Neal Adams, for once, Bruce Lee was in the background, while Jim Kelly literally knocks the teeth out of an imaginary foe.
Ultimately, Jim Kelly wasn’t the new Bruce Lee. But I, like many other young men in the mid seventies was hopeful he’d be the one. Athletic, strikingly handsome with legitmate martial arts skill, cool daddy swagger and the best afro this side of the Jackson 5, Jim Kelly created his own unique screen persona. The fact that he was seriously considered a possible successor to one of cinema’s true originals, speaks to the impression he made at the onset of an uneven, but memorable career.
Kelly died this past weekend of cancer at the age of 67. Tributes were all over the internet via Facebook, Twitter and any other social media outlet that you can think of.
My pal, Michael Jai White posted a heartfelt tribute to Kelly on his Facebook page, on Sunday. That was a rough one for Mike to write, as Jim Kelly was one of his heroes and a major inspiration in his life. Michael became a black belt martial arts in several different disciplines, as well as a popular actor, particularly in the action genre. He always cited Kelly’s impact on him as significant. As he said in his tribute: “He was a pioneer, our first black representation of what a black martial artist is to this world. His look, swagger and martial arts prowess has been an inspiration to myself as well as countless others.”
Mike used his admiration for Jim Kelly to fuel what would ultimately become the cult classic, ‘Black Dynamite’. A little Shaft, a little Jim Brown and a whole lot of Jim Kelly would help Mike define the character originally known as ‘Superbad,’ before another movie with the same name came out first. Once again from his post: “In Black Dynamite, I copied his monochromatic fashion sense, his afro, as well has his patented kiai (yell) SUUUEEYY! I am inspired to continue honoring him as I forge forward in this industry.”
When Mike was still developing the character and storyline, he did an early photoshoot to help give him and his collaborators the vibe that he was going for. As you can see, Jim Kelly wasn’t far from his thoughts.
Michael Jai White is but one example of the impact Jim Kelly made. On the cover of magazines, television appearances and posters all helped make Kelly the man of the moment. During the height of the Blaxploitation craze, he offered a persona that was a little younger and a little hipper than Shaft, Slaughter or Black Caesar, and young Black kids like me ate it up. At the height of his fame, while Kelly had alot of Muhammad Ali’s swagger, he didn’t have the perspective, team or ultimately talent that was required for him to enjoy the type of career we all hoped for him.
Following the release of ‘Enter the Dragon’, Kelly was poised for major success. There had never been anyone like him onscreen: A Black man who was a martial arts champion with matinee idol looks and a sense of style? He was the first, hands down.
(‘Black Belt Jones’)
Kelly signed a deal with Warner Bros, who reunited Kelly with the director and producers of ‘Enter the Dragon’, resulting in a couple of cheap action flicks, ‘Black Belt Jones’ and ‘Hot Potato’. While ‘Jones’ has a few amusing moments and Kelly gets to strut his stuff, it becomes even more clear what Bruce Lee brought behind the scenes to ‘Enter the Dragon’. The consistent tone, quality and execution present in ‘Enter’ is absent in ‘Black Belt Jones’. The slapstick tone of ‘Jones’ did Kelly no favors and weighs down what could have been a stepping stone to greater things. Unfortunately, the sequel ‘Hot Potato’ saddled Kelly with sidekicks, generic action scenes and more bad humor, with his ‘fro and neon wardrobe battling for screentime.
His final film with the ‘Enter the Dragon’ team was the supposed thriller ‘Golden Needles’, where Kelly played a sidekick to Joe Don Baker of ‘Walking Tall’ fame. Aside from his great three piece suit, the less said about it, the better.
Things weren’t looking good for Kelly, but all of a sudden he was cast in the first real Black superhero film, ‘Three the Hard Way’, starring alongside Jim Brown and Fred Williamson. A story about three bad dudes out to prevent a madman from eliminating the Black race, ‘Three the Hard Way’s’ iconic poster promised more than the movie could ultimately deliver, but it was still a blast and audiences lined up to see the Big 3 in action.
Jim Brown was his strong and silent self, Fred Williamson was the charming cigar smoking fly guy that we all grew up with, but Jim Kelly changed his game. Rolling with a moustache and butter smooth leather gear, he was ‘Mister Keyes’, a quiet but deadly martial artist. Unquestionably, the most memorable scene in the entire film is his confrontation with the local police. Even his wooden delivery can’t hurt this scene, it actually adds charm to it.
Jim Kelly- Three the Hard Way
Jim Kelly did two more films with Brown and Williamson, ‘One Down, Two to Go’, where he’s taken out of the picture early, and ‘Take a Hard Ride’, a western where he played a mute, half Black, half Indian who knew kung fu. Seriously. It’s a better film than it sounds.
From there, Kelly went to the Philippines, where he made several martial art films that were truly beneath him. ‘Tattoo Connection’ and ‘Black Samurai’ fortunately didn’t receive a wide release and faded from memory quickly, but the ‘Samurai’ poster was nice.
Jim Kelly’s film career never fulfilled its promise, but the handful of performances that showed what he was capable of continued to fascinate film fans the world over for nearly forty years. His mystique continued to grow, especially since he literally disappeared from the scene following ‘One Down, Two to Go’, moving to San Diego to be a pro tennis player and then instructor. He briefly popped up in a LeBron James Nike commercial in 2004, but other than that, he was way off the grid.
Somehow, he was talked into making an appearance at ComicCon in 2008 or 2009. It was low key, Kelly was at a small booth as a guest of the booth’s owner, signing autographs and taking pictures. My pal Denys Cowan called to tell me he met him and we were both freaked out that he had resurfaced.
Kelly’s appearance was enthusiastically received and for the rest of his life, he was a fixture at most major shows, always greeted with a long line of fans, young and old, male and female, eager to shake the hand of the man who told Han, ‘Man, you come right out of a comic book’.
I met him at a martial arts convention and chatted with him for awhile. He couldn’t have been nicer, and was in amazing shape. I ran into him about a year later in San Francisco and we picked up our conversation where the last one left off. It seems that the business left some deep scars that never totally healed, but they weren’t deep enough to keep him from appreciating the love that he received whenever he hit the convention circuit.
He wasn’t the greatest actor or martial artist, but he had style and charisma to burn.
He was the best Jim Kelly. Rest in Peace.
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