Thanks to Joe for the suggestion of this movie. Mean Johnny Barrows is a classic Blaxploitation film from the 70s and it's not so bad. Let's get to it.
We open with a squad of soldiers training out in the woods. I think this is a training ground in California (98% sure), it can't be Vietnam, there were no ground troops over there for years. Our hero, one of these soldiers, is played by legendary b-movie action god Fred "The Hammer" Williamson. I've reviewed a number of his movies over the years (here, here, here, here), and they are uniformly good campy fun. Did you know he was in an episode of the original Star Trek series?
So, Johnny steps on a live landmine. Whaaa...in California? It seems that Johnny's superior officer, a greasy, slimy, racist Captain, put out a bunch of live mines so that the training would "seem more real". Johnny is not pleased and once he dodges the mine, he punches the Captain and is drummed out of the Army with a dishonorable discharge.
So they make this big deal about how Johnny flashes his nametag at the camera as the music zooms, but it's clearly spelled "Johnnie", which is not...
...the same name as in the goddamned title of the movie! Come on, people!
Right off the bus in Los Angeles Johnny is mugged and left with nothing but the clothes on his back. He's picked up by racist cops who bop him around a bit before he's saved by an older cop who recognizes him. This guy provides the needed expository background so we can understand Johnny's motivations. Johnny is a former running back for some local bigtime college who left school after two years due to a "co-ed scandal" (how quaint, you don't even notice that anymore). From there he joined the Army and ended up in Vietnam where he killed a bunch of enemy soldiers and got a Silver Star. After the war he apparently stayed in the Army, until being kicked out in the opening scene.
Broke, homeless, and hungry, Johnny wanders the mean streets of LA looking for work. He's not having any luck, though perhaps it's more his methods that are at fault. Normally, employers are looking for more than some homeless dude just walking up and saying, "Hey man, got a job?". Throughout this extended, ten-minute long scene, a jazzy up-tempo disco song blasts away on the soundtrack, and if you aren't tapping your shoe along to the beat by the end, then you are clinically dead.
A carwash for under a dollar? Surely Los Angeles in 1976 was a veritable paradise where everyone had shiny clean cars!
A rose in a gold box for just two-fiddy? Unthinkable!
Jesus, new Pirelli tires for $9.86 each? Where is my time machine?!?
What? Parking in downtown LA for a buck? Seriously?
In one of the most egregious examples of stunt casting I've ever seen, Johnny meets a philosophical bum in an alley played by "special guest star" Elliott Gould. He then just steps aside and lets Elliott Gould be Elliot Gould for three minutes, gnawing through scenery like a piranha in a swimming pool, almost showing off in an "oh, look at me, I'm such a great actor" sort of way, before disappearing for the rest of the movie. Perhaps he was friends with Fred Williamson, heck, maybe he even worked for free (ha!).
Eventually Johnny goes into a diner (seemingly picked at random) and meets Mario Racconi, the joint's owner and member of the powerful Racconi Mafia family. Mario is a gentleman and offers Johnny some free spaghetti while they talk. Mario recognizes Johnny because he (Mario) played at USC against him (Johnny, who played at "State", whatever the hell that means) and knows he was a war hero (how is that common knowledge?). Mario needs a man with Johnny's "special abilities" (killing VC in the jungle, not so much running for the corner on a tackle sweep play) and he offers him a job right there on the spot. While tempting, Johnny has to turn Mario down as he's trying to go straight and doesn't need that sort of trouble. The conversation ends pleasantly enough, though.
Johnny also meets Mario's girlfriend Nancy here and takes a instant shine to her. For no other reason than it's in the script (don't forget Williamson was the film's director), Nancy also seems to have googly eyes for Johnny, despite the fact he's essentially a smelly, homeless bum at this point, and she's dating a wealthy mobster with fancy suits and stacks of cash.
Normally I would complain how miserable this pan-and-scan digital transfer was, but since it cuts out the two dudes while leaving in Miss Boobsalot, I'm totally okay with it.
Finally, Johnny gets a menial janitorial job at a lowrent service station in the bad part of town. His boss is a total dillweed and has Johnny cleaning toilets and scrubbing the floors all day long. He does, however, let him sleep in the stockroom, on the floor, with no blankets or pillows, so that's mighty white of him. It's hard not to see this as a "message movie", especially considering it's 1976 in an urban city and the boss is an old guy with a Southern accent. I suppose that Fred Williamson is trying to tell us something deep and profound about race relations in America, and that's fine in principle, but I'm still sitting here watching this dreck because I was promised some kung fu and maybe some boobies, not because I want to be enlightened.
My, his mop is so big...
You know what I notice? A month in the same clothes sleeping in a storeroom without a shower or some Old Spice. Hey why is Johnny sleeping there, where is his family? Doesn't he have any sisters or fifth cousins or anyone he can stay with? He went to high school in LA, and was a big time college star at UCLA, surely he must know someone in the entire city of LA who would let him crash on their couch and loan him a new t-shirt.
I know they are trying to set up a sob story for him, but all you can think about as the scenes wear on is, "Man, those jeans must reek!".
Hanging out in alleys with winos, so far from Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide.
The final straw is his first payday when he gets a measly
21 dollars for a month's work. So, he's had no money for a month? How has he been eating, then? Maybe he was lunching down at the soup kitchen with Elliott Gould? Johnny kinda loses it here, fighting with his boss and then punching out some cops who come to break it up. Here we get the first example of Fred Williamson's unique brand of Angry Black Man Fu, which he has unleashed in virtually every movie he has ever made. It's characterized by slow, methodical "karate" moves cribbed from frequent viewings of Bruce Lee movies, and stuntmen who are trained to fall down at the slightest whiff from Fred's hairy hands. Back to jail he goes.
21 dollars won't be buying too many hotdogs (there's a lot of odd close-ups of food in this movie).
Meanwhile, Mario's family is having trouble with the DaVince family, their old gangster nemesis from NYC who have recently come to sunny LA and set up a flower shop to act as a front for a drug running operation. There is some serious bad blood between these two families, dating back to when the Dons were just kids in New York, and you just know this town isn't big enough for the both of them. Don Racconi needs a heavy to deal with the DaVinces and Mario suggest giving Johnny another chance (he just won't let it go). Johnny agrees to meet the Don, but he again turns down the offer of cash for violence. At this point you have to wonder why they even still bother with Johnny, surely there are hundreds of goons in Los Angeles who would gladly murder their own mother for fifteen dollars. Johnny just turned down $100,000 so he can go back to working at a gas station and eat from trash cans, showing us he's got principles, at least.
Don Racconi sure does love his purple.
Don Racconi then hires a hitman (I guess he didn't need Johnny after all...) to whack Don DaVince's son. It goes wrong and the hitman is killed. As things are getting out of hand, the Dons then have a meeting on hallowed ground (if they both just moved here, how do they have relatives buried here?). When negotiations fail Don DaVince rubs out Don Racconi in a hail of bullets. They also shoot up Mario, but he lives (bad mafia form to not check bodies, all of their subsequent problems would be solved by checking the body).
Don Racconi either gets shot or he's in a stage production of Oklahoma.
Mario has his family's money and from his hospital bed he tells Nancy to go get Johnny and offer him big bucks to avenge him (but first he has to bail him out of jail). But Johnny is still reluctant and rightfully so. Why him, again? In the last month they've talked to him just a few times, are there no other hitmen out there, maybe one you don't have to coerce into taking the job?
Talking to Mario.
Nancy now phones to say she was raped by Don DaVince's youngest son! Johnny is pissed and Mario uses that to his advantage to get him to agree to become his hitman. Johnny has said all along that all he wants is some land out in the country that he can own, and Mario offers him this to tip the scales. So, now Johnny has sold his soul and is now a hired killer for the Mafia. My, how far he has fallen from the first act where he was willing to live in dirt to keep his scruples. Of course, he's also motivated by his love of Nancy, which is clearly doomed.
Hard to blame him, though.
And in fact we learn that Nancy and DaVince's youngest son are in cahoots! They plan on having blind-to-it-all Johnny whack everyone and then they can take over in the power vacuum. Hey, did anyone see Romeo and Juliet? Can this really surprise anybody?
All women are evil, proven fact.
Flush with hundred dollar bills and driving a shiny new Eldorado, Johnny first goes to the DaVince flower shop and guns down the Don's oldest son and some other random Italian guy. You can tell by the pained, almost remorseful, look in his eye that he's not too happy with what he's become (a murderer, essentially). I will say that Fred Williamson, despite his obvious limitations as an actor, does a pretty good job throughout this movie showing a nice range of emotions as Johnny goes through his story arc.
Pimp suit, flashy silk tie, platform shoes, and a chrome-plated .45 with Mother of Pearl handles, nice. If you are going to be a Mafia hitman, do it in style, baby.
Johnny then tracks down the other son (who was on his way to Mexico to hide out while his devious plan takes shape) and ambushes him on his boat. Johnny growls and snarls, angry that this guy (supposedly) raped his fair Nancy (he's blissfully unaware of her deception) and he cuts his leg with a knife and throws him in the water. On first watching, I was terrified that there was going to be a shark scene here, and instantly hid behind a throw pillow, but nothing came of it (I have no shame when it comes to sharks).
Ok, in an establishing shot, the boat's captain sits here making navigation plot circles on a map with a protractor for like 45 seconds while Johnny sneaks up on him. As the boat is still at the pier, and they're just going down the coast to Mexico, I have to wonder what the heck he's doing. These are the things that keep me up nights.
Johnny still believes Nancy is good and pure and awesome and he's convinced that he has a shot with her. Does he really think she's going to leave Mario, the Mafia bigwig, to hook up with him? Didn't Johnny ever watch The Godfather? You shouldn't steal your boss's woman when your boss is head of a Mafia family, that sort of thing just seems like it would be common knowledge.
But still, she's hot, so maybe it's worth it.
Meanwhile, Don DaVince hires a professional hitman to strike back (see, those do exist in LA, so why does the Racconi family seem to think that Johnny is the only option for them?). This assassin (we don't see his face here), takes a lame shot at Johnny as he's leaving a restaurant, failing to run him down with his car and then tossing a ninja throwing star at him before running off. If I didn't know better, I'd say that the assassin was deliberately trying to miss Johnny, maybe he just wanted to scare him.
Seriously, has there ever been a more impractical weapon ever made?
Johnny raids Don DaVince's house now, hijacking a flower van to gain entry to the gated house (a Ford Econoline, mind you, once again proving my point that FoMoCo specifically marketed these vans to criminals). They just drive right up to the Don's house and the armed guards just wave him through the gate. Hey, here's a thought, since you have a Mafia turf war ongoing, maybe you should check vehicles coming and going from your boss's compound?
Oh, and Nancy drives this rare BMW sedan, which Johnny sees several times, and...
...the same car is parked right outside Don DaVince's house, which Johnny either fails to notice or the location manager thought the audience wouldn't notice (we did!).
Johnny, now in spiffy white linen double-breasted suit and patent leather shoes, jumps out of the van, hauling twin double-barrel cut-off shotguns. While I question the utility of his choice of weaponry (they are single-shot guns and he seems to have no extra ammo on him), it does make for an impressive "poster shot" as Johnny poses with his shotguns and his twitching mustache. He kills four men (including Don DaVince), but luckily for him the other guards seem to disappear (so much for the vaunted Mafia family loyalty).
So, does killing the Don himself eliminate the whole Mafia family? There's still money and drugs flowing through the operation at all levels, surely some underling would step up and take over (several, mostly). But I guess Mario just wanted the actual Don dead (plus his immediate family it seems) so it doesn't matter in the long run. But still Johnny needs to be aware that the Mafia has a long memory and the remains of the DaVince family might come after him eventually. And does this mean that he's still in the employ of the Racconis until all the DaVinces are eliminated? It seems from later scenes that he's walked away.
That's a wicked Lincoln Continental with the suicide doors (rarely see those anymore). Same car as what was in The Matrix, by the way, but without The One in the backseat.
Anyway, after the raid, Johnny is again ambushed by that mysterious assassin (though his employer just got whacked, so I sure hope he got paid upfront). The killer turns out to be the US Army Captain that we saw in the opening! WTF? He's an officer in the US Army? Not with that stringy, bassist in a Jethro Tull tribute band haircut and 95-pound beanpole heroin addict body.
They have a nice fight, though, with a few laugh-out-loud funny moments (surely unintentional). Johnny finishes him by thwacking the Captain in the chest with his own throwing star (instantly killing him, despite the fact that the star is just stuck maybe third of an inch into him).
"Oww! My pancreas!"
All that over, Johnny meets up with Nancy and takes her out to the woods somewhere to show her the chunk of homestead he just bought with the money Mario gave him. He wants to build a house, raise some hens, milk some cows, and he wants Nancy to come out here and be his Eva Gabor. Since she's a city girl with blowdried hair and four-inch heels, that's going to be a hard sell. But it doesn't matter, because, if you recall, she's been double-crossing them all this whole time and she shoots Johnny dead!
Bang, you're dead.
Nancy then steps on a live landmine and goes boom! Holy fuck, what just happened here? Did Johnny buy a parcel of land on that same US Army training ground that we saw in the opening? The same ground that the Captain sprinkled with mines? Huh? What? This entire ending, from him getting shot to her exploding is like a bad Hong Kong kung fu movie where in the last three minutes all sorts of crazy shit happens, cats parachute out of pelicans, ninjas get sucked up by UFOs, little kids turn out to be midgets with atomic flamethrowers, all manner of insanity not too much different than the end of Mean Johnny Barrows here. Well, at least Fred Williamson knows how to end a movie with memorable style... [Editor Pam: Perhaps the ending is supposed to be metaphorical, symbolic of the black man's struggle in contemporary America? No, I think somebody just wasn't thinking.]
Oh, I see, that explains everything, thanks.
By the way, what is this thing? Is this a telegraph machine? I heard my greatgrandfather talking about those.
Written in January 2010 by Nathan Decker and edited by Pam Burda.