Let us return yet again to the glory days of blaxploitation films; but this time to the hybrid martial arts/blaxploitation genre. When it comes to black marital artists on the big screen, the undisputed king was the late great Jim Kelly who wowed audiences during the 1970’s. But there was another black martial artist also making films at the same time, though obviously not as well known.
I’m referring to Ron van Clief better known “The Black Dragon”. If you’ve never heard of him that’s understandable. He never quite reached the popularity of Kelly for a couple of reasons. First of all, unlike Kelly who made most of his films for major Hollywood studios such as Warner Bros, MGM, and Allied Artists at the time, almost of Van Clief’s films were super low budget, Hong Kong made movies which were picked up for theatrical release in the U.S. by smaller distributors, and shown on relatively few screens usually in grindhouse second run theaters.
Also, as you can tell from the trailer below, van Clief was barely much of an actor and lacked a real screen presence. But then Jim Kelly wasn’t that great an actor either, but managed to successfully cover his shortcomings with a charming braggadocio which made him very likeable on the big screen. However Van Clief was a really good martial artist in his own right who developed a genuine cult following. And his life story is rather interesting as well.
The Brooklyn born van Clief, who started learning martial arts in his early teens, was a former Marine who served in Vietnam, and later went on to become a New York City transit cop for a few years. During the most of the 1990’s he was a fighting instructor for the U.S. Secret service.
But his career in martial arts has been extraordinary. He has won many professional martial arts competitions, earning his 10th Degree Black Belt with a record 110 wins and 8 loses. Now in his early 70’s, he tours constantly and actually still competes, even recently – at the age of 72 – won a silver metal competing in a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Black Belt Tournament.
He has appeared in some 16 films, but 8 of them, from 1974 to 1983, were martial arts films made in Hong Kong, such as “The Black Dragon’s Revenge” (AKA “The Black Dragon Revenges the Death of Bruce Lee”), which is considered to be one of his better titles… relatively speaking.
In the film, which was released in the States during the fall of 1975, van Clief teams up with Charles Bonet (“The Puerto Rican Terror”) to, as the title says, avenge the death of Bruce Lee. It’s far from being a classic to be sure, but the fight scenes are a lot of fun. And what’s better than seeing brothers who are martial artists? l would rather watch 10 van Clief films than watch yet another tedious, seen it all 100 times before “Star Wars” film like “Rogue One.”
But van Clief has always had a following among exploitation film buffs, and long time martial arts fanatics. If you’re one of them, you’ll be happy to know that the speciality DVD label, The Film Detective, will be releasing “The Black Dragon’s Revenge” remastered and on blu-ray later this month, Jan. 31st.
No word yet as extras on the blu-ray, but it would seem obvious that there will be some commentary by the still very much alive and very active van Clief, as well as other special features.
Check out the trailer below: