Hot Potato title card

The soldiers’ only redeeming quality is that they dress well and attack in formation – they’re like an evil synchronized swimming team.

He was no ordinary 70’s b-movie star, that Jim Kelly. He first made his mark as a suave but badass sidekick to Bruce Lee in “Enter the Dragon” – “man,” he taunted lead villain Han, “you come right out of a comic book!” Then he followed up with the pulse-pounding blaxploitation excitement of “Three The Hard Way,” jumpkicking through a whole slew of crooked cops and looking great the whole time. (His character’s name is priceless, too: MISTER Keyes. “My mama wanted people to show me respect!”) And then, the goofy beauty that was “Black Belt Jones,” dumping crooks into a garbage truck with Gloria Hendry and hanging out at McDonald’s with teenagers named Pickles. You couldn’t just lump Kelly into blaxploitation; nor could you just label him a martial arts guy, either. The man busted genre boundaries along with heads. He was the Johnny Cash of b-movies.

But therein lay the problem: Kelly was so unique that the movie houses didn’t quite know what to do with him. Hand strikes-meets-Harlem is a complex concoction, after all; when the mix is just right, as in “Black Belt Jones,” the results are delicious. When it isn’t, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. “Hot Potato,” the sort-of sequel to “Black Belt,” unfortunately leans toward the latter; would that it could have found its footing as easily as the nimble Kelly could.

Carter Rangoon

There is an old proverb: he who wears a fake beard must not pitch in the Giants’ bullpen.

The Dragon again plays a character named Jones, but this Jones is some kind of secret government agent, sent to the fake Southeast Asian country of Chang-Lon to rescue the daughter of a US Senator from the clutches of one Carter Rangoon. Carter is working an extremely convoluted scheme that the movie never quite explains, but suffice to say the man has a long, fake-looking beard, a large compound filled with henchmen and soldiers, and a pit full of tigers into which he throws his enemies. Therefore, EVIL.

Rhino's eating contest

Rhino: not quite right for a Jim Kelly movie, though probably perfect for his own TLC series.

Jones arrives in Chang-Lon with his sidekick, Johnny Chicago, who is grumpy and spends most of his time grumbling about his fee for the mission. They meet up with a local detective, Pam, who is also grumpy and says she can handle everything herself but ends up going along with Jones’s plans anyway. They also seek out Jones’ old friend Rhino, a Texan expat with large appetites and no shame – his first scene is an eating contest in which he’s trying to earn a night with three Thai ladies – while wearing a toga, no less – and he spends most of the movie pulling sandwiches out of his clothes and shaking his hinder at villains. I literally mean “most of the movie,” too; Jim Kelly may have top billing here, but “Hot Potato” is roughly 85% Rhino antics. Anyway, their unsurprising plan is to sneak into the base and grab the hostage and run for it.

Jim Kelly on an elephant

Jim Kelly IS the Elephant Whisperer. 

“Carter Rangoon is a clever man,” Pam explains to Jones and his cohorts. “He’s bound to know what we’re up to.” Actually Carter Rangoon is a convoluted man, and so he hires a woman to pretend to be the senator’s daughter, just to throw the heroes off his confusing trail. Sure enough, Jones and company head to the compound for a little rescuin’; the ensuing fight scene is long, and much too wacky for my tastes. Rhino lets loose this little battery-powered toy police car, which is about as big as a lunchbox but somehow makes a siren noise so loud that none of Rangoon’s soldiers can hear each other talk. Then, Jones and company find and ride some elephants, who brush up next to the compound “walls” and destroy them. Rangoon’s terrified, yet surprisingly smartly-dressed, soldiers respond to this two fronted toy car-elephant offensive by running in circles, falling over, dancing in place and generally conducting comic hi-jinks for no reason. (And they’re not the only ones: Rhino and Johnny keep interrupting their fights to alternately complain about their hats, argue with their elephants and fight with each other).

Meanwhile, Jones remains a smooth, sophisticated martial arts master throughout, and Pam keeps that vibe too. It’s like they’re in a cool secret agent picture while Johnny and Rhino are in a Zucker brothers movie somewhere on the same movie lot. The music doesn’t help – it’s certainly not funky, and sounds more like the music you’d hear in one of those low-level Rat Pack caper movies, where there’s maybe Sammy OR Dean, not both, and certainly no Sinatra.

Rangoon's synchronized soldiers

This fight scene, and the next twelve or so to come, reveals the other problem with the movie: the villains are completely terrible. Except for a very short and pointless encounter with some quicksand, at no time do you ever feel like Jones or his friends are in any trouble. The soldiers attack the team as they head down a river on a boat… so Jones kicks their tails in the water. The soldiers attack again on land, and the team clobbers them on dry soil with nothing more than a kite and some fireworks. The soldiers’ only redeeming quality is that they dress well and attack in formation – they’re like an evil synchronized swimming team.

After several more fight scenes and a lot of general meandering around, Jones and Pam discover that the “daughter” they rescued is a phony – and then Rangoon has the fake daughter killed because she was double-crossing him in some typically convoluted way. So much for the last hour of the movie.

Jones fights Rangoon

Finally Jones and company make their way to Rangoon’s headquarters, where they easily defeat more soldiers and Jones tangles with Carter Rangoon himself. This would usually be the time where the lead villain reveals he’s a martial arts master, or a weapons master, or some kind of master, but no – after taking a few of Rangoon’s mediocre rabbit punches, Jones just throws the dude into his own tiger pit and rescues the real senator’s daughter. I guess not every mission is a tough one, right? Jones’ reward is a visit to Pam’s house, where she answers the door in a sultry traditional outfit with a sly look in her eye. “You’re invited for dinner,” she says. “And breakfast.” Score! The end.

Johnny Chicago and Jones

And thus ends one of the more oddly paced movies I’ve seen yet. Rather than a true blend of East-meets-Watts, “Hot Potato” pinballs back and forth between martial arts and blaxploitation, with a heaping helping of slapstick thanks to the much-too-over-the-top Rhino. On the plus side, the scenery is not bad (it was filmed in Thailand), and Kelly’s fight scenes, which are ostensibly the point of the picture, are pretty awesome, especially a late night tussle with some sword-wielding “living statues” on a hilltop temple. This scene, by the way, is one of the few where the background music gets funky – everything else has generic sound. But then I guess you could say that about the whole movie – Kelly shines and almost everything else is blah. Very mildly recommended.