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The Slams

The Slams(1973)

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teaser The Slams (1973)

Curtis Hook: "I think I can handle it myself, my man."
Fellow Prisoner: "Not in the slams, baby. Nobody can handle it all by themselves in the slams."

When people think of Jim Brown's movie career, The Dirty Dozen [1967], Ice Station Zebra [1968] and 100 Rifles [1969] usually spring to mind. One movie that often doesn't, but definitely should, is The Slams, released in 1973 and starring Jim Brown at the top of his form. It's a shame because The Slams is damn good but doesn't get the kind of attention it should because most folks write it off, sight unseen, as an exploitation film, a term used too many times to dismiss exceptional movies made on low-budgets with niche appeal. If The Slams is exploitation, it can only mean they were exploiting Jim Brown's talent and the movie's fast-paced and tight storytelling to make an endlessly entertaining thriller.

Jim Brown was internationally famous before he ever stepped onto a movie set. As the running back for the Cleveland Browns, Brown set records that put past NFL running backs to shame and set a standard for greatness still held up by many as the high-water mark for his particular position. When he decided to chuck it all at the incredibly young age of 30 to become a movie actor, most folks thought he was crazy. Brown had no formal theatrical training and besides, he still had several great years left as a running back. It didn't matter. Brown made up his mind and left the gridiron for the soundstage, never looking back and surprising quite a few people in the process.

When Jim Brown emerged as an effective supporting player in movies like The Dirty Dozen and Ice Station Zebra, it seemed only natural that he would soon make the leap to leading man. Unfortunately, in the late sixties and early seventies, Hollywood didn't have a lot of roles for tough, no-nonsense black characters in action movies. In the days before Will Smith and Samuel L. Jackson, the genre was still largely white-dominated and it seemed a safer bet to team a black actor up with a white one, like the pairing on television of Bill Cosby and Robert Culp in I Spy. But two movies effectively shattered that myth and did so boldly in 1971: Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and Shaft.

Melvin Van Peebles' Sweetback and Gordon Parks' Shaft proved that a strong central black character could succeed at the box office without the white co-star. Jim Brown wanted the same chance and got it in the form of a producer famous for doing exactly what he wasn't supposed to do and for a tenth of the price, Gene Corman.

Gene, younger brother of Roger Corman, produced movies on the cheap and this allowed him, as well as his brother, to take chances other producers wouldn't. Corman leapt at the chance to jump aboard the "Blaxploitation" bandwagon, as the new sub-genre had recently been dubbed, and putting together a starring vehicle for Jim Brown seemed like the perfect fit. Corman wasn't as concerned with the overall quality of the film as much as the box office take but when he got Brown together with director Jonathan Kaplan and screenwriter Richard DeLong Adams a funny thing happened: The three of them put together one very good action/suspense thriller.

Jonathan Kaplan later became famous for directing Jodie Foster to her first Oscar® in The Accused [1988] and helming 40 episodes of the popular television series ER but in The Slams, his talent for action and pacing are on full display. And the intricately plotted screenplay by Richard DeLong Adams keeps the viewers tense and guessing what will happen next. Yet none of this would work without a commanding central character and Jim Brown delivers a perfectly tempered performance.

Brown's natural ability to appear slightly angry at all times (the man has a scowl that should be encased in cement in front of Grauman's Theatre) works beautifully for his character, Curtis Hook. He's a criminal but one with a sense of perverse justice: He hasn't gotten his fair share in this country so he'll take it by force. In the opening scene, Hook and two other men kill drug dealers and steal their money with Hook being the last man standing and hiding it where no one can find it. Brown plays the opening robbery sequence with righteous anger, complaining that he wants his share of the money but not the drugs because the drugs are bad "for the brothers." He also manages to drop the "F" word four or five times in the space of thirty seconds because it was 1973 and Jim Brown said it so well. It may be a small moment, but when he's chastising his two white co-conspirators, his voice seethes with barely controlled rage.

And what an opening sequence! In the space of nine minutes the audience gets a drug deal, a group of other criminals intent on crashing that party, a shockingly effective method of disposing of the competition, a double-cross, two gunfights, a high-speed police chase and a wipeout on the highway. That's when Brown goes in the slams (prison) and the real plot starts: Figuring out how to escape to get back to that hidden loot.

Among the many contenders in the exploitation action genre of the '70s, The Slams is one of the best and deserves to be better known. It's a tightly paced thriller with a compelling protagonist and storyline. The supporting cast does a tremendous job of fleshing out the peripheral characters to the story and we even get treated to a few cameos. There's Ted Cassidy, Lurch on TV's The Addams Family, as a menacing, murderous inmate. And Corman fans will immediately recognize Dick Miller as the cab driver and once again wonder why he wasn't used a lot more than he was. The film also has a terrific seventies funk score by Luther Henderson and inventive cinematography by Andrew Davis, who would learn the lessons of Jonathan Kaplan well and use them to become one of the best action directors of the eighties and nineties with such films as Under Siege [1992] and The Fugitive [1993]. But mainly, there's Jim Brown bringing a justified defiance and attitude to his convict hero. And that's enough to make The Slams must-see viewing for any fan of the genre.

Director: Jonathan Kaplan
Screenplay: Richard DeLong Adams
Cinematography: Andrew Davis
Music: Luther Henderson
Film Editor: Morton Tubor
Art Direction: Jack Fisk
Cast: Jim Brown (Curtis Hook), Judy Pace (Iris Daniels), Roland Bob Harris (Captain Stambell ), Paul Harris (Jackson Barney), Frank DeKova (Capiello), Ted Cassidy (Glover), Frenchia Guizon (Macey), John Dennis (Sergeant Flood), Jac Emel (Zack), Quinn K. Redeker (Warden), Betty Cole (Mother), Robert Phillips (Cohalt), Dick Miller (Taxi Driver).

by Greg Ferrara


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