Velvet Smooth (1976)

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In the tradition of Blaxploitation comes this one jivin’ private detective with a kung fu kick who is hired to take on her most dangerous case yet.

A group of masked thugs have been terrorizing the city. One of the local businessmen in charge of the city’s operations, benevolent crime boss King Lathrop, is beginning to worry that someone is trying to take over his turf. He decides that he must hire the only person capable of helping him take out the thugs and to find out who is responsible. That person is private detective Velvet Smooth, a karate-kicking woman who has the connections and uses them to get the job done.

Together with her cohorts Frankie and Ria, Velvet begins to help King investigate who may be responsible for the thugs. However, as she comes closer and some truths are revealed, she learns that it may be more than she can handle. Not one to give up, Velvet uses every resource possible, including her old friend, underground casino owner Mat. However, when Mat’s place gets ambushed by the masked goons, Velvet soon learns that the person responsible may be the last person they ever expected.

The second installment of an unofficial trilogy I like to call the “Nisei-Goju Karate Trilogy”, because the three films all involve exponents of the art, can be perhaps described as a precursor to the hit series Charlie’s Angels, with the titular Velvet Smooth leading the way. The other two films in this trilogy are the 1974 film Force Four and the 1977 kung fu-horror hybrid, Devil’s Express (aka Gang Wars).

Johnnie Hill, in what would be her only film credit, takes center stage and does it quite well in the titular role. She has the look of a Blaxploitation action heroine almost close to Pam Grier and has the skills to match as well. Interestingly enough, the filmmakers played it smart and did something a little different than what is usually expected when a Blaxploitation heroine takes the lead. Unlike Grier, Hill doesn’t need to resort to using certain assets per se, but rather charm her way verbally to get the information she needs. Yes, she tends to be quite flirtatious at times with good-hearted boss King, but it is clear she may actually have eyes more for casino owner Mat.

The late karate expert Owen Watson comes off Force Four quite well to take on the role of the benevolent King, who only needs to use his fists when necessary. When he’s not trying to figure out who is on his turf, he tends to be quite like Velvet but with the ladies. In one laughable scene, right after a fight scene, it cuts to King having a pillow fight with one of his girls. Rene Van Clief and Elsie Roman bring the looks and the skills as well as Velvet’s most trusted allies, Frankie and Ria while the founder of Nisei Goju Ryu himself, the late Frank Ruiz, hams it up at times as a hard boiled detective who finds himself on the case as well.

Owen Watson not only played King in the film, but also served as the film’s martial arts choreographer. As expected, the fight scenes are quite a mixed bag, with some fights looking good and some looking not so good. However, one has to respect that we are talking 1970’s New York City indie filmmaking at its finest. Watson makes good use with the cast and some highlight fight scenes include a rumble in a poolhall, where Velvet, King, Frankie, and Ria all team up to take on the goons; King taking on an opponent on a rooftop; and the climax, which is all set up in an old warehouse and we get to see Master Ruiz himself in action. Even current Nisei Goju Ryu head Wilfredo Roldan gets a nice fight scene against some of the masked thugs before meeting his demise.

Velvet Smooth is a definitely underrated 1970’s Blaxploitation martial arts film shot on location in New York City. Some decent martial arts sequences plus a heroine who doesn’t need certain assets to get the job done makes this an interesting watch for fans of cult films.

WFG RATING: B

A Neshobe Films production. Director: Michael Fink. Producers: Michael Fink, Joel Schild, and Marvin Schild. Writers: Leonard Michaels and Jan Weber. Cinematography: Jay Dubin.  Editing: Joel Schild and Marvin Schild.

Cast: Johnnie Hill, Owen Watson, Emerson Boozer, Rene Van Clief, Elsie Roman, Moses Lyllia, Frank Ruiz, James Durrah, Thomas Agero, Wilfredo Roldan, Michael Scorpio.

 

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