The Direct to Video Connoisseur

I'm a huge fan of action, horror, sci-fi, and comedy, especially of the Direct to Video variety. In this blog I review some of my favorites and not so favorites, and encourage people to comment and add to the discussion. For announcements and updates, don't forget to Follow us on Twitter and Like our Facebook page. If you're the director, producer, distributor, etc. of a low-budget feature length film and you'd like to send me a copy to review, you can contact me at dtvconnoisseur[at] I'd love to check out what you got. And check out my book, Chad in Accounting, over on Amazon.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

I was debating whether or not I wanted to review this, because, while it is essentially direct to video, it doesn't have a direct to video feel. This would have been a theatrical movie 10 years ago, but in the current movie landscape, the traditional big movie houses are looking for the next Marvel-type franchise that they can make a billion dollars worldwide on, so Netflix swoops in to fill the void, and now we have something that only got a token theatrical release so it would qualify for award season, then goes to Netflix streaming, which fits exactly our definition of direct to video: something that does the bulk of its damage on the home viewing market.

Dolemite Is My Name follows the life of Rudy Ray Moore, played by Eddie Murphy, first as he develops his character Dolemite for his stand-up act, and then later as he produces his Dolemite movie with very little budget and resources. Every time he hits an obstacle, he perseveres, until ultimately his film is made and screened in movie theaters to huge success.

This was fantastic. Eddie Murphy is great, bringing us back to the 80s and 90s R-rated Murphy, but at the same time, giving that touch of feel-good that we got from his more family oriented PG films of the 2000s. And that's ultimately for me what makes this work so well, it's an R-rated Disney-uplifting-based-on-a true-story-type movie, but it doesn't lay it on too thick, so that when we need it to be poignant, we can enjoy it without it feeling too sappy. Beyond that, it has so many hilarious moments, with such a talented cast that is all invested in the project and doing their best to make it succeed. Yes, ten years ago this would have been a theatrical release, but at least Netflix is there to fill the void so this gets made at all in the modern movie making climate, and who knows, maybe without a big studio sticking their nose in, we get this the way it is here.

We've never had Eddie Murphy on here before, and what makes this whole straight to Netflix thing so odd, is we're not getting Eddie Murphy in some DTV action yarn shot in Michigan with 50 Cent and Bruce Willis in it like we do when most big screen actors go DTV; that's not what this movie is on any level, it's the real deal. It's something that we're going to have to look at more on the DTV Connoisseur, because we also have Martin Scorsese making movies for Netflix. Do we review  The Irishman too? And what does that mean for future DTV flicks when something like this is swimming in the same pool as they are? I think part of it is, with me only doing one movie a week, those yarns shot in Michigan or New Orleans with Bruce Willis or whoever on the tin will probably get squeezed out if they don't have a Hall of Famer in them, or if they don't generate the buzz a movie like Avengement did. When you also factor in all the past DTV flicks from the 80s and 90s I still need to look at, movies like Dolemite Is My Name and The Irishman totally change the calculus for us.

Of the many names in this film, the one whose work we've seen most here on the DTV Connoisseur is Wesley Snipes, who plays D'Urville Martin. I heard Michael Jai White in a recent interview say "when people see you kick someone in the head, you get known for kicking people in the head," which meant, "if you do action, you get typecast as an action guy," and I think to some extent that happened to Snipes, so it was great to see him among so many great comedic actors hold his own and show us his range beyond action again. With the Black Panther movie having so much success, I think people forgot that Snipes was already playing an African American Marvel super hero on the big screen in the late 90s/early 2000s. Those Blade movies were a lot of fun, and they were a lot of fun in large part because of how great Snipes was in them.

As we discussed in the Gerald's Game post, which was another Netflix original we looked at, you can't get this movie on DVD or Blu-Ray. You either pay $13 a month for a Netflix account, or you're out of luck. So on the one hand, it's fantastic that Netflix is filling the void while the big movie houses are looking for the next billion dollar property, on the other hand, I can't just plunk down my $20 and have this to watch whenever I want, I have to pay $12 a month in perpetuity--and then who knows if Netflix ever decides to take it down. I also need to have an internet connection to watch it, so if you go to a camp or cabin in the woods that has no internet, you can't show your friends the movie that haven't seen it yet. If you have an Eddie Murphy collection, you can't add it to that, just like you can't add The Irishman to a Martin Scorsese collection you may have. That part troubles me, that we're so beholden to Netflix, especially with a movie that's so great like this and how much a Blu-Ray with all the extras would make it that much better. (Jen showed me a Stranger Things DVD from Netflix she saw online, so maybe these will come out on DVD and Blu-Ray eventually.)

There are so many great names in this movie, but with only 8 paragraphs, I couldn't get them all, so I narrowed it down to one performance that I felt really tied the movie together for me, and that was Da'Vine Joy Randolph as Lady Reed. The movie overall does a great job straddling the line between raunchy comedy romp and syrupy sweet sentimentality porn to give us something in the middle that's very mature and never strays too far in either direction, and I think Randolph's performance embodies that. As a supporting character, a lot of her interactions with Murphy help to round out his character and give him more depth, but I think she also managed to make her come out of those interactions with more depth as well, and made us want to root for her too; and with all the silliness in the movie, we needed that depth to make this movie turn out the way Murphy intended.

I can't recommend this enough, which also means, if you don't have Netflix, I'm technically recommending you get that too. I don't know if it will eventually come out on Blu-Ray, but however you get a chance to see it, it's worth it.

For more info:

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Riverbend (1989)

With what would have been Steve James's 68th birthday this past week, I wanted to get another one of his films on the site.  As we've discussed before, unfortunately he doesn't have as many with him in the lead as he should, but this was one of those movies. This one was also reviewed by our friend Kenner at Movies in the Attic, so you should run over to his site to see what he thought of it too.

Riverbend takes place in a small town in Georgia in the late 1960s. The town is plagued by an extremely racist sheriff who terrorizes the African American community there, killing whom he wants and raping the women. At the same time Vietnam Vet Steve James and two of his soldiers are being transported through the area for an upcoming court martial after they failed to carry out an unjust order. They escape and run to the town, where they hide out at the house of a widow whose husband was killed by the sheriff as he tried to tell a judge about atrocities the sheriff had been committing. Once James learns of the tyranny in the town, he offers to give all the African American men military training, then lead them to take over the town, which they do, holding the white townspeople hostage while waiting for their demands to be met. Will they succeed?

This was a movie that covered really tough material in a way that pulled very few punches, which I appreciated. We've seen bad white guys in Blaxploitation movies, but Tony Frank's sheriff takes it to another level, and does it in a way that I think American history, at least as far as the most reported narrative is told, is afraid to confront. We then meld that with Steve James as the kind of lead who commands the screen in every scene he's in, and Sam Firstenberg's action directing, for a movie that worked really well overall. It may not have been an action film in the purest sense, but I enjoyed it--as much as I could say I enjoyed the tough subject matter that was covered in this.

James absolutely stands out here. He really does command every scene he's in. The first line of his imdb bio says it all: "Steve James was often cast in action movies as the hero's sidekick, despite usually being a better actor and fighter than the star." Well here, like Street Hunter, we got to see what it would be like if he was the star, and it was as good as we could have expected. He would have been 68 this past week, only a few months older than Steven Seagal, meaning had he lived, we probably would have still been getting movies from him, and hopefully more of those lead roles he deserved all those years. Here's to you Steve James, you were one of the great ones.

This is the eleventh Sam Firstenberg we've done on the DTVC, but this one might have the most depth. To some extent though, he just takes what works in the action genre--heroes you want to root for and baddies you want to see defeated--and just moves that paradigm over to this movie. It's not totally bereft of action though, especially once the troops led by James take over the town, and then when the national guard comes in to try and take them out. We also get a few hand-to-hand fight scenes with James, not quite to the level of American Ninja 2, but good enough considering we're not coming to this movie entirely for that. I think with that in mind, we can say that Firstenberg, while getting out of his comfort zone of ninjas and cyborg cops, does well here to make this movie a solid one. (Note, my friend Jon Cross did an interview with Sam Firstenberg on his Booth Talk podcast, and Sam said he actually started in dramatic films, but was approached by Cannon to do Enter the Ninja, and the rest was history; but that means a movie like this would've actually been in his comfort zone.)

As I mentioned above, the sheriff in this, Tony Frank, was absolutely despicable. I was shocked to discover in looking at his imdb bio that he was only 46 when he made this, as his character looked older. I understand that a movie has to have a character like him in order for it to work, but I don't know that I could do that role, just walking around from scene to scene saying the N word all the time, shooting or threatening to shoot innocent people just because of the color of their skin. I know, the movie needs Tony Frank just as much as it needs Steve James in order to work, but this ain't no Alan Rickman in Die Hard tons of fun to play baddie, this is detestable stuff he's doing, and I feel like that's gotta be hard to pull off for an actor, day after day of shooting.

I don't know if I'd call it a controversial part of the movie, but one aspect that gave people trouble was how all the white people in the town were rounded up and held hostage after James and his militia take it over. There was a sense that they were innocent people, and that can sometimes diminish the altruism we need to root for our hero. I didn't find that to be the case though, because the white people in that town were at best benefiting from the racism and tyranny that plagued the African American community there, and at the very least they had the luxury of being able to look the other way at the tyranny, even if they didn't approve of it. Even the business owner in town who was against the sheriff and sympathetic to the African Americans didn't lift a finger to help them or get the word out about their plight. This was a rare case where the innocent people weren't exactly innocent, and by rounding them up and holding them hostage the way they did, it sent a message to everyone, even some of us watching it.

That's as good a note as any to wrap things up on. This is a definite watch for me. Again, we don't have many movies with Steve James in the lead, and in this one he really takes the reins. In addition, we have Sam Firstenberg's direction, enough action where we need it, plus a strong and compelling story to keep us engaged when there's no action.

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Saturday, February 15, 2020

Crossbreed (2019)

While I was on hiatus, I was still receiving emails about screeners to the DTVC yahoo email, so when I came back I dug through them to see which ones would be good ones for the blog, and Crossbreed, which came courtesy of Alicia at Uncork'd Entertainment about a year ago, was one that stood out.  Between the desire to get the word out on a lower-budget independent film, the fact that it had Vivica A. Fox and Daniel Baldwin, and the type of film it was, it all looked like something I could do for the blog--even if I was a year late on it.

Crossbreed takes place about 40 years in the future.  Our president, Vivica A. Fox, along with her Secretary of Defense, Daniel Baldwin, send a team of mercenaries led by Cherry Hill, NJ's own Stink Fisher to find a possible alien bio weapon that is being kept on a space station orbiting the earth by a nefarious corporation.  As always in situations like these, things aren't exactly what they seem, and now Fisher's team needs to find a way to get out alive and back to the President to tell her what happened.

Mitch at The Video Vacuum has talked about grading DTV films on a curve, and I think that's especially true of an indie film that's as earnest as this one was.  I think overall I enjoyed myself, and that's the best you can ask for.  It has a runtime of about 86 minutes, but with credits it's more like 77 minutes, and even then we had moments where the dialog felt repetitive, or conversations went on a bit too long, meaning we maybe had enough material for a pilot to a syndicated TV series--but again, one that I would have wanted to watch.  Vivica A. Fox was great as the president, Daniel Baldwin great as her Secretary of Defense, and I thought Stink Fisher was that leading man/hero-type that we instantly want to root for, which is what something like this hinges on for me.  I also liked way the alien was done, and thought the CGI special effects were really good as well.  Sci-Fi is not easy to do on a limited budget, but I think this one gets it right much more than it gets it wrong.

The email to the screener I got only mentioned that Vivica A. Fox was the president, not that she became the first ever African American woman to play the President in a live action feature film with this role.  We've had African American women as the President on TV, and Penny Johnson Jerald played the president in a Justice League animated movie, Gods and Monsters, but here we have the first African American woman playing the President in a live action feature film, and it's a low-budget DTV film.  The thing is, there was nothing gimmicky about this, out of the cast, Vivica A. Fox was best suited to be the President, and until I found out that she was the first African American woman ever to do this, I saw the trailer and just looked at it as "of course she's the President, she fits in this role."  On top of that, if you look at her imdb bio, she's been grinding out a lot of movies--many of them with someone else renown for how many movies he grinds out, director David DeCoteau--which is something we at the DTVC always respect, and I think further highlights that she earned this additional feather in her cap in having this role and this distinction to her name.

It looks like in the history of the DTVC, this is only the second Daniel Baldwin movie we've covered, the other being Knight Moves with DTVC Hall of Famer Christopher Lambert, which we reviewed all the way back in 2007.  I think in terms of Baldwin brothers, that ties him with Stephen, who also has two, and then Alec and William both have none.  If you're getting a Baldwin brother for your movie, you can't go wrong with Daniel, and he shows that here.  Like Fox, he's not in a lot of scenes, and almost all of them are with her, but other than the action, their scenes were some of the most fun to watch, which is what you want if you pony up the cash to cast them in a lower-budget film like this.  In addition to these two, Vernon Wells is in the film at the very beginning, and then he's done.

A lot of the way I see this film packaged is as a throwback to the 80s and 90s sci-fi alien thrillers, but I think the problem with this compared to those, is that the alien action here is quick and doesn't comprise a lot of the film.  When I think of Alien and its sequels, I think of movies in the 2-hour range that not only have the great effects and performances, but they also have a Hitchcockian quality where tension is built up, then either deflated or something big happens, then we relax and wind ourselves up for it to happen again.  Even a movie like Creature with Klaus Kinski that we looked at on here went over 90 minutes and had more of that element.  This was more like I had some fun moments, and then that was it, it didn't have that extra depth that those other movies had, so I don't think just because there's an alien on ship picking people off for the last 20 minutes that we can say it's in the tradition of that kind of film.  Again, this felt more like it sets up for the start of a syndicated TV series--one that I would watch if it were that--than it does an Alien.  I know Alien is a classic that was made on a major Hollywood budget, that's why I threw Creature in as a further comparison, because I think even that one had more of the depth and actual alien-person tension that I want in something made in that tradition.

If you go to imdb now, Stink Fisher's bio has his picture, but when I first saw this it didn't, and I didn't know who he was.  I did also see that he's from Cherry Hill, NJ, near where I live in South Philadelphia, and when I heard him talk and heard the accent I'm so used to hearing down here, I knew it had to be him.  As I mentioned above, his leading man character was exactly what I'd want from a film like this, and to some extent I think was underutilized.  There were times where I think we focused more on supporting characters who weren't as compelling, and the result was that a 77-minute movie had moments that dragged.  This is where if we had more alien-person tension, Fisher is someone we could have leaned on to make us buy in and care if this alien picks someone else off; or care if they were successful if the writers added a new attempt to thwart the alien.  To make a movie like this work, you need the big names that are only in it for a short time like Fox and Baldwin to make the most of their short time, which we got; but you also need performances like Fisher's keep us invested when those bigger names aren't on-screen, which we also got.

And which is why, ultimately, I can say I liked this movie and would recommend it.  It's an independent movie done on a smaller scale, but still big, earnest aspirations, wanting to get it right, and I think more often than not it does.  Not only that, but it makes cinematic history.  This is currently on Prime and Tubi, so you can check it out on one of those and support independent film making.

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Saturday, February 8, 2020

Undercover Brother 2 (2019)

Netflix suggested this one to me, and since I was trying to get more Michael Jai White on the blog, I figured it would be a perfect fit.  Of course, as we always know, "perfect fits" at the DTVC usually equate to duds, so hopefully this one proves us wrong!

Undercover Brother 2 has Michael Jai White as our hero, as Eddie Griffin doesn't reprise his role from the first one.  In the early 2000s, he and his brother Lionel are frozen in an avalanche in Austria while trying to take down The Man, played by Barry Bostwick.  They wake up in modern times, but White is still in a coma, so Lionel has to come back to America and defeat The Man's latest plan.  As Lionel tries to reorient himself with the modern world, he and The Man discover that The Man's son plans to take over the world by poisoning everyone with a drug called Woke, which makes people into ultra Liberals first, then turns them into hypersensitive over-argumentative social justice warriors that try to kill each other over disagreements.  Can Lionel crack this case and save the world?

This movie was fantastic.  Yes, after we find out White's character is in a coma and Lionel, played by Vince Swann, will be taking over, there are definite bait-and-switch fears.  But then he's sent to a new hipster coffee shop in his old, now gentrified neighborhood, and it's just all good from there.  Swann and the rest of the cast turn in a great performance, the action's fun, the jokes work, and the commentary does a great job of critiquing modern discourse from the Left, while maintaining a healthy does of denouncing the bigotry and hate we've seen from the Right.  I think this is the kind of movie and message we need right now in 2020.

And after I got through that early skepticism and fear that we'd have a Michael Jai White bait-and-switch, when the movie became something much more, I realized that I should have trusted White's judgement that he wouldn't have signed onto a project like this if it wasn't good.  And his character does find his way into the film more, which helped.  I saw him on an interview he did for VladTV, and in it he said he didn't want to be known as only an action guy, because you can get locked into that--and action guys have a reputation for not being able to act too.  At first the thought as an action fan is "why do we need you act when your martial arts skills are so fantastic?  Just give us a well-choreographed fight every 15 minutes, and we're good."  But later in the interview he talked about some of the things he's been through in Hollywood, like filmmakers saying to him "what we need is a white you," and then it makes more sense that he needs to show how versatile he is, because he won't always get those action films we want to see him in.  One thing I like about a movie like this, or the exceptional Black Dynamite, is we get to see him do both: be a comedic actor that is also an expert martial artist.

Barry Bostwick is fantastic as the baddie.  When we last saw him on the DTVC, he was FDR in FDR: American Badass!.  What's great about his baddie is Bostwick is clued into current events, and he uses that to shape his baddie the same way the rest of the cast uses it to shape their characters.  I looked at his imdb bio, and he's been working a lot lately.  It feels like more and more actors are going the Eric Roberts route, trying to get in 5 or 6 credits a year, which is great, but often there's a lot of variability in the quality of all those projects.  This is one at least that I can say is good.

One of the problems people run into when they criticize the hypersensitivity and cancel culture that can plague the modern Left, is they end up gaining the sympathy of people who hold extremely pernicious views on the far Right.  This movie does a great job of straddling that line by making sure that, as they make fun of a guy with a Man Bun, curly mustache, and cardigan he picked up in the women's section, they also keep reminding us that Neo Nazis marching in VA are the real bad.  I think that's one of the issues that has come in the backlash to Cancel Culture, really problematic views have found sympathy, when they really shouldn't have.  That's an advantage in a 90 minute movie versus a 3-minute segment on a cable news talk show with 4 panelists divided by boxes via satellite, or worse, a rapid-fire Twitter pile-on, is that a message can be made, and then the message can be added to and shaped so we gain a full understanding of what is trying to be said, and that kind of approach is something we need more of now I think.

Going back to the Man Bun guy, who we discover is in cahoots with our main baddie, it's a phenomenon that I think, like the Fanny Pack, isn't going to be like "oh that's so dated," but rather "that was never in, even when people were doing it."  In the 50s we thought 2020 would have us all in one uniform, probably shiny metallic, gender normative (did you like that?), there's no way we could have predicted that a man with a bun, a curly mustache, and woman's cardigan sweater, would ever be something that men who consider themselves "hip" would ever wear.  I will say, I think 2020 is a bit late for that, that that was maybe more a mid-2010s thing, but it still happened.  I mean, no one saw that coming.  Back to the Future II didn't have guys in Biff's gang rocking Man Buns and curly mustaches, and if it did, we'd say "is this Back to the Future, or the Leslie Nielsen parody version?"  So when our hero Lionel encounters Man Bun after being frozen for 15 years, he reacts the way that we all should have been reacting all along.

All right, so I enjoyed this movie, I think it really worked for me.  Right now it's on Netflix to stream, so it's easy to get your hands on.  For me, it's worth checking out.

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Saturday, February 1, 2020

The Messenger (1986)

With the Kansas City Chiefs playing in their first Super Bowl since they won Super Bowl IV, I thought I'd do a post featuring our favorite NFL DTVC Hall of Famer, Fred Williamson, who played in the first Super Bowl for the Chiefs.  The story went that he had his infamous move, "The Hammer," which would knock out opposing players.  Unfortunately though it was he who was knocked out in the first half after he was hit by a member of the Green Bay Packers.  Fortunately though for us, he had the last laugh, which is a fantastic second career in DTV movies like this.  Also, our friends Ty and Brett at Comeuppance Reviews has looked at this as well, so you can go over there to see what they thought.

The Messenger has Williamson as Jake Sebastian, a man who has just gotten out of prison in Italy and is excited to see his girlfriend.  Turns out said girlfriend is involved in the Italian coke trade, and she's upset some really powerful people.  After leaving a party, those powerful people meet them outside and hose down his girlfriend with an uzi.  Now he wants his revenge, and he's going to take down everyone in Italy and America whose involved in the coke ring.

This was a pretty fantastic 80s Italian action production. Williamson was as great as you'd want, plus the supporting cast included Cameron Mitchell, Christopher Connelly, and Stack Pierce, guys you watch something like this for and are stoked to see when they're there. The action wasn't bad, there weren't many dull moments, and when we didn't have action, we had guys like Williamson, Mitchell, Connelly, and Pierce who could carry the scenes and keep them fun.  Not only that, the film had this early 80s R&B soundtrack that made me want to dig up Peabo Bryson and James Ingram playlists on YouTube.  If you're looking for a low-budget 80s Italian actioner, this is a great choice, especially if you're binging on a few at once.

As always, we lead off with our Hall of Famer, and Williamson not only stars in this one, he wrote the story, and directs and produces as well.  With this being the weekend of the Super Bowl, one thing that's great to look at with Williamson is how, for most people, his football career would have been the thing to hang his hat on, and anyone who lived that alone would have felt lucky to have done that; but Williamson has gone on to have a 50+ year acting career after that, and he's still going!  This is my first Williamson flick since I came back from hiatus, so we'll try to keep the ball rolling from here and get more up, but this was a great one to bring him back with.  Between his martial arts, his leather outfits, and his too sweet  mustache, this is 100% Pure Hammer.  Here's to you Mr. Williamson, you're one of the great ones, and a true Hall of Famer.

Knowing I was going to do one paragraph to cover both Cameron Mitchell and Christopher Connelly, I tried to find an image that had both of them in it, and this was the best I could do.  Mitchell played an LAPD detective investigating drug crimes, and Connelly the FBI agent leaning on him for information so they could bring Williamson to justice while he was taking out all the "drug gangsters", and most of their scenes were one alone on screen yelling at the other, and then the other alone on screen responding.  It doesn't matter, as I mentioned above, these are guys we come to movies like this for, and they didn't disappoint, but the fact that they were interacting with each other in almost every scene they were in made it even better.  Like Pacino and De Niro in Heat, only in a family pack amount.  Also, Stack Pierce (not shown), was Mitchell's partner on the LAPD, and he and Mitchell were great together, as always.

One of the things I've talked about in my Steve James posts is how James didn't get the leading roles he should have, often losing out to white actors, like when Dudikoff was cast as the lead in American Ninja despite having no martial arts skills and James was an expert martial artist.  Unfortunately James passed away as he was starting to get more of those leading roles; but we see in a film like this how Williamson also had to go outside the usual avenues to get the roles he wanted and tell the stories he wanted to tell.  Williams not only starred, he directed, produced, and wrote the story for The Messenger.  It was like, if the industry won't give me the parts I want, I'll have to make them.  To underscore again how sad it is that we lost James so young, Williamson turned 41 in 1979, and look at how much he's put out since that we love, and which we've been really lucky to have.

This movie, and this blog post, have been brought to you by King Cobra malt liquor. How amazing is that?  In another scene, Williamson and his buddy (the guy above) were sitting at a table, and there was a case of it with them.  I haven't had it in a long time, so I googled it, and found that they've changed the logo and bottle!  What a shame?  I also discovered old magazine ads with Williamson while I was searching, which are amazing.  I used to drink a lot of 40s when I was younger, whether King Cobra, Colt 45, or Bull Ice.  Two of those and a joint, and the next thing I'd know I was waking up in a bathtub full of ice in an Eastern European dive motel minus my kidneys.  Man what great times those were!  And Anheuser-Busch, if you're listening, I would love to have King Cobra as our official sponsor, and would do all I can to pitch your find product.  If you want to reach out, you can use the email at the top of the site.  I look forward to hearing from you!

Okay, better to wrap this up now, as we're really going off the rails here.  This is available on Prime, and also can be found on YouTube.  If you in the mood for either Fred Williamson, an 80s Italian actioner, or both, this is the flick for you.  As an aside, I'm posting the link to this on imdb, but it's almost impossible to find on there by searching.  You need to look up Fred Williamson first, then find it in his filmography.

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