|The Plot: Johnny Barrows was at one time a football prospect, with the whole world ahead of him. However, after some controversy with a young woman he skips town and joins the army. He is awarded the silver star and is an excellent soldier, but unfortunately some of his superiors are of the racist variety. After a routine training exercise lead by Barrows where a minefield is supposed to be completely dead and his troops are to sweep it – those superiors plant a live mine that Johnny steps on. When Johnny de-activates the mine and confronts his superior, he belts him one right on the kisser. This gets Johnny a dishonorable discharge. Once Johnny arrives in the states, he is mugged immediately after stepping off the bus. He wanders the streets looking for food before finding an old football foe who runs a restaurant, turns out this restaurant is a mob front and Johnny’s old adversary is looking for some new muscle. In particular, a new hitman. Johnny however has no intentions of killing anyone. He takes his chances on the street, but times are tough and work isn’t exactly plentiful. Johnny finds work at a local gasstation where he is put to work cleaning bathrooms and doing all the dirty jobs. The mob won’t quit calling though, Johnny needs to make a decision, what will it be?|
The Review: Fred “The Hammer” Williamson is without a doubt my favorite male lead from the blaxploitation era. My all time favorite lead from these films would most definitely be Pam Grier, such a beautiful woman with such sweet charisma… ahh, doesn’t get much better. Umm, oh yeah, Fred Williamson! Williamson in my opinion was probably the most talented leading man in any of these films. He had a lot more going for him than simply his charisma and charm, Williamson always seemed to invest himself a little more than the likes of Jim Brown or even Richard Roundtree. Just my opinion is all, but Williamson had a certain Brando quality about him where he could be tough as nails but also convincingly emotional and hurt. It really is a shame that his time seemed so exclusive for this one small era, when in my opinion he could have followed in the footsteps of Sidney Poitier – but also a man capable of bringing an action movie to life. The guy was so much more than just a football player turned action star. With Mean Johnny Barrows Fred not only steps in to deliver his own special take on yet another tough but fair leading man, he also sits in as director. With Barrows, Williamson lives up to just what I have described here. He delivers a subtle and nuanced performance in the midst of this small but engrossing crime film. Although the Italian stereotypes are in full effect, Williamson’s film delivers a lot of the things that can make a mafia-based film great. Sure, it seems silly to have a la cosa nostra based crime film set in the middle of Los Angeles, and sure the Italian accents seem like overkill – but the sense of the culture is thick in the film and the back and forth messages to one another are the things mob movies are made of.
Did I mention the Hammer-fu? I didn’t did I? Boy, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen The Hammer breaking it down with his unique brand of fighting. To see Fred Williamson taking on a kung fu pose whilst fighting in a poorly choreographed fight sequence (probably not his own fault) is just another reason to see this flick. The final fight sequence is actually pulled off fairly well, but still just as funny as the first one I am thinking of. The real meat and bones of Mean Johnny Barrows isn’t in the action however, it is mostly a character driven crime drama. Resembling a little of that art-house style of something like Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, only much more linear. Much of the film is about Barrow’s deep contemplation on what he is going to do and his dealing with homelessness. It’s only after about a hour into the film that Johnny actually takes on a direction, with many sequences preceding just showing Johnny trying to figure things out and cure his own moral dilemma. One segment even features Elliot Gould in a small cameo as a bum who is very well spoken and calls himself a professor, who introduces Johnny to the soup-kitchens where he can get some desperately needed food. His time as an employee at the gasstation is equally memorable, however I’ve done a lot dirtier work without as many complaints as Johnny seems to have – but it all becomes understandable when it comes out how little the gasstation owner tries to pay him for a month’s work. Mean Johnny Barrows is not what you would really call an action film, even though that is generally what most consider Blaxploitation films to be – however, if you’re patient enough and can dig on the crime elements as much as I did you’ll be treated to some “cool” crime oriented shootings and plot twists in the third act of the film. The double shotgun shooting rampage that Williamson goes on at one point is worth the price of admission alone, giving the film a healthy dose of bloody violence at the tail end. Blood definitely goes a long way, but hey, there’s even a kiss of death in here to keep up with all the other Godfather influenced mafia cliches. I live for this sort of stuff!
So in the end, is Mean Johnny Barrows worth your time? You bet it is. Generally anything with Fred Williamson is going to be worth your time but you throw in a cleverly scripted mafia story featuring as many betrayals and cheesy genre cliches as you can shake a stick at – and you’ve got a winner. The last act of the film shows Fred in classic form, delivering some outstanding lines before putting an end to several mafiosos. They all have it coming through! Williamson drops the hammer (ZING!) and has never been more cool. His character and the arch that he is on seems to bend slightly to the will of the movie rather than being a fully natural growth but by the end of the film everything comes together just fine. I’m not going to say it’s the best of the blaxploitation genre or even Williamson’s best – but I don’t feel bad about calling it a classic at all. I give it a four out of five, which is probably exceptionally high for this film – but I enjoyed it thoroughly and see it as a film deserving of a larger audience. It’s a mostly serious, sometimes wacky and all times entertaining crime story about a man coming to terms with his own violent past and his search for happiness. It’s probably a high three rather than a four, but until I make a three and half rating, the four will serve its place.