Mean Johnny Barrows was quite a pleasant surprise to your grizzled old Uncle Boris. Here I was, feeling like reviewing another Blaxploitation flick for these pages. I was expecting a cool action movie with the usual wonderful dialogue, fashion, music and attitude. Little was I expecting quite a thoughtful, soulful film about the struggle for a downtrodden black man to survive in a prejudiced white America. Maybe it's because the main star, Blaxploitation Film icon Fred Williamson, was the director as well. There's quite a few levels co-existing at once here folks, let's see if we can peel a few away in the course of the review. Yet again, we have a cameo from Roddy McDowell! Are these pages becoming an ongoing tribute to Mister McDowell?
Johnny Barrows (Williamson) is dishonorably discharged from the army in Vietnam for striking a racist (and high-up) fellow officer, who had almost gotten him blown to pieces by stepping on a live land-mine. Back home in the States, Johnny finds endless trouble and rejection when looking for work, or even just a place to fit in. He's attacked by a gang and hauled in by the racist police for being drunk, even though he's clearly badly injured and not inebriated. Recognised as a former war hero by one of the police - he won a silver star in battle - he's grudgingly let go. Walking into a restaurant, he's offered a job by Mafiosi Mario Racconi (Stuart Whitman) and his girlfriend Nancy (Jenny Sherman) but declines as he senses the shadiness of the offer. He joins the soup-kitchen queue with the super-literate "Professor", an odd - and very quick - cameo by Elliott Gould. Johnny finally gets a menial job at a gas station with the mean penny-pinching Richard (R.G. Armstrong) who in the end rips off Barrows, and receives a beating for it. Of course, this sends Johnny back to the police station.
Racconi still wants Johnny in his employ, and springs him from jail. Johnny says no again, but in the meantime has fallen for Nancy. We see that a mafia war is brewing between Racconi's family, who just does numbers in the area, and the Da Vinci family, who bring the new threat of drugs, and exploits the blacks and hispanics. As the crime war escalates, the Racconi family is wiped out in a treacherous double-cross and only Mario is left, gravely injured in hospital. Nancy seems to be kidnapped by the Da Vinci family and tells Johnny over the phone of being made to do "terrible things". Finally, Johnny relents and under the weight of poverty and love for Nancy, agrees to become a hired killler to enable Mario to avenge the Racconis. We then see Williamson in all his white-suited glory as the hired assasin, stealthily wiping out the Da Vincis. Soon we find out that Nancy has betrayed Johnny to the worst of the Da Vincis, her true lover Tony (a strange role for Roddy McDowell!) and that her and Tony want to wipe out everyone through Johnny's skills, then kill him and take all the mob fortune to Mexico. Too late for Tony, though, Johnny gets to him first and pitches him into a shark-infested ocean with a cut leg. Johnny then confronts the man who had him dishonorably discharged, now a mercenary killer for the Da Vincis. Barrows easily overcomes him with kung-fu, and finally catches up with Nancy, who after first playing the dutiful lover, reveals her dastardly betrayal. Who will survive the finally shootout, and even a land-mine that comes out of nowhere?
You've got to feel something for "Mean" Johnny Barrows. He spends most of the first part of the film just looking for a break, or some kindness. He doesn't talk much, but lets the endless wandering through the city do the talking for him. We're surrounded in filth and poverty everywhere we go. The funk-ful music is also affective here in conveying the bleak situation our protagonist finds himself in. I was surprised that there was only one black character in the whole movie, Williamson himself. I guess as director he was intent on having maximum impact, and he certainly cuts a distinctive figure, first in his faded denims, then in his super-sharp white killer-threads. The film almost seems more the character-study of a betrayed, flawed hero than an action-exploitation feature. I really wanted things to go right for poor old Johnny, but in the end it's your interpretation as to whether he comes out "on top" at the end or not. Events don't exactly turn out how he's hoped. Action-wise, there's not a great deal happening, although Williamson does look good doing his kung-fu, and wielding pistols or shotguns in a few scenes. McDowell is an odd choice for an Italian-American, but he's always fun to watch, so I can forgive the casting agent for this one. The rest of the actors are serviceable, but don't detract from the overall appeal. Williamson's directorial skills are simple, he's not a visual artist par excellence, but he does seem able to capture the inner life of a character through simple images and music.
Whatever you've heard of Mean Johnny Barrows, give it a look if you're interested in a slower, more sedate, thinking person's Blaxploitation film. And let's face it, you can't go wrong with Fred Williamson and Roddy McDowell in the one film either.
© Boris "Jiveass Muthah" Lugosi 2005.
Review written: 07/04/2005 22:13:18