His friends call him Mr. T. His enemies call for mercy!
Blaxploitation cinema will probably always be a contested phenomenon. On the one hand, Blaxploitation cinema offered black folks some of the most visible opportunities to appear on screen without falling into one of the four or so categories that Hollywood typically put black actors in. Blaxploitation films had black protagonists and existed in a largely black world where lots of characters were black, and not all of them fit those stereotypical roles. On the other hand, though, Blaxploitation films tended to take place in the ghetto, portraying the world of African-Americans as rife with drugs, prostitution, violence, and a toxic masculinity. As producers discovered there was money to be made in selling this vision, more and more product flooded the streets, it became more about exploiting a trend than telling a story of black life. But it’s not all bad. 1972’s Trouble Man tries to take a serious look at the world of Los Angeles crime, but it’s an oddly bloodless affair.
Mr. T (Robert Hooks, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock) is an all around bad dude. He’s a pool hustler, a private eye, and a guy who can get things done for the criminal elements in South Central. Then Mr. T gets hired to figure out who’s robbing a local dice game, which gets him framed for murder. Now the cops and the criminals are after him.
The Blaxploitation film has always been a lesson in contradiction. On the one hand, Blaxploitation films thrived on their portrayal of cool cats. Shaft, Dolemite, Mr. T all share a kind of cool based in their blackness and the fact that they were attractive men (or women in the case of Pam Greir’s films). But on the other hand, Blaxploitation films are all about action as well, solving the problems of the ghetto with a beautiful woman in one hand and a mean-looking gun in the other. Cool, however, is almost always about being detached. And as the name suggests, cool runs in opposition to the heat of anger and militancy that drives the heroes of Blaxploitation cinema. The best Blaxploitation films thrive on this tension.
Trouble Man is not the best Blaxploitation film, however. Robert Hooks brings the effortless cool to Mr. T. The character is an all-around bad-ass, driving a nice car, wearing expensive suits, and getting as many ladies as his heart desires. He knows what to do in a crisis, and Hooks’ magnetism keeps the screen watchable throughout the film.
The problem with Trouble Man is that none of the crises the plot throws up are worth of Mr. T’s talents. You would think that being framed for murder would keep the stakes high enough, but Trouble Man too often becomes about people explaining things rather than busting heads. The film tries to bridge the gap by having Mr. T stare guys down to intimidate them. Hooks does a convincing job – I for one wouldn’t hold out on him – but that doesn’t make the film’s narrative any more compelling.
Trouble Man has survived, however, not on the strength of the picture, which is marginal, but because Marvin Gaye released the soundtrack. Not only did he release the soundtrack, it was the first music Gaye released after his groundbreaking statement What’s Going On. So people snapped up the Trouble Man soundtrack to hear more from one of the most important voices in soul. Gaye wasn’t the first, nor the last, to score a Blaxploitation album, but the status of the record elevated Trouble Man higher than it likely would have achieved on its own.
All this makes the film’s Blu-ray release more disappointing. The film’s 1.85:1/1080p transfer looks okay. The source is in okay condition, and detail is generally pretty good. A more comprehensive restoration would let detail really shine, but what’s here is fine. Colors are muted in an early-70s style, but that’s appropriate. There are no compression artifacts to speak of. The film’s DTS-HD 2.0 stereo track is even worse for wear. Dynamics are all over the place, with dialogue sometimes barely audible before effects or music overwhelm. There’s also a bit of damage that hasn’t been cleaned up, pops and hisses mostly.
Extras start with a commentary film historians Nathaniel Thompson and Hower S. Berger. It’s an informative track that shares info about the creators, the production, the general Blaxploitation milieu, and keeps the facts coming. We also get the film’s original trailer.
Missing, however, is a focus on Gaye and his music. Thompson and Berger address it, of course, but this is the kind of release that cries out for a retrospective documentary about the film, Gaye’s music, and Blaxploitation’s relationship to black musical artists more generally. This probably isn’t Kino Lorber’s fault – the Gaye family are very protective of Marvin’s legacy, so licensing can be tough. But to not spend a huge chunk of this disc acknowledging Gaye’s contribution seems like a terrible oversight.
Trouble Man isn’t all bad as an example of Blaxploitation, just not a great one. I wish that there could have been a series of films featuring Mr. T, cause he’s a great idea of a protagonist. The fact that he’s on both sides of the law makes him more interesting, and the fact that he’s capable in pretty much every situation he finds himself in really helps. If only this plot were a bit better at showing off his strengths.
Trouble Man isn’t a bad Blaxploitation film, but it wastes a solid lead performance on a lackluster action plot. Marvin Gaye’s soundtrack essential, but it doesn’t get the respect it deserves on this disc. The audiovisual presentation is only so-so, and the commentary is great but not enough for most viewers. It’s probably worth upgrading for die-hard fans, since the film definitely looks better than standard def, but it’s a rental at best for most other viewers.