The Guy From Harlem is Al Connors, and he’s a really nice guy. Oh, he’s bad and all, good with the ladies, got some extremely original pseudojudo moves, all that. He does one dishonest thing in the movie, and if I had the balls to do it, I’d have done it too. A lot of Blaxploitation features are keen to show you what life on the Street is like, or seems like from your chicken-ass life out in the suburbs; The Guy From Harlem lives in Miami, and he does pretty well for himself. Thanks for asking.
The movie itself starts jarringly with Wanda, the daughter of HARRY, a loud gangster. She’s being held on a soundstage, err, in a house in the glades. Her captor gets a bit grabby, but she gets him talking about why she’s there. She’s being held to leverage her dad to do something. Wanda is told that she’ll have some company tomorrow, a fellow kidnap victim, so they’ll have lots to talk about. The new roomie will be the wife of an African President. You will spend the movie wondering what the connection is, what the overall plan might be. Don’t; there isn’t any. This is not a complaint, just a little something to let you relax and enjoy the movie’s other pleasures (even though it doesn’t have a helicopter).
There are three stories here; two have to do with Al Connors, and the other has to do with the filmmakers realizing they were about 20 minutes short on their original cut. Until Wanda actually joins the plot of the movie, we get scene after scene of various goons trying to have sex with her. All the dialogue in these scenes is clearly improvised. The rest of the movie is written in a very mannered style that will please the kind of moviegoer who wonders aloud about things like how did that guy have time to call ahead and arrange for his deus ex machina later. You get all of those scenes here. There’s exciting phone dialing bits, realistically-long pauses in one-ended phone conversations, even extremely clear statements of intent. No-one hides a single thought in their head. So when these “Let’s rape Wanda” scenes occur, they end up being really revealing. My favorite improv partner is Mac, the second goon. He keeps trying to declare things that she’s not doing, like “Then why are you shaking?”. He’s playing improv to win. She hits him with “You’re hurtin’; that’s why you wanna hurt worse than that” and he literally stops. It’s a great bit.
The whole business is also elevated by having the actors talk over each other when they’re both entering and leaving scenes. The lines are always banal stuff, but this Altmanesque dialogue style (clearly imposed by the actors) does a good job of keeping you in the moment. A couple of HARRY’s goons have the funniest moment in the movie when walking off camera together. Their exchange is spontaneous and also clearly unscripted. I really want to like this movie, and it doesn’t fight me too much in this regard.
So the other two parts of the plot are this: Al is hired by the CIA to protect Mrs. Ashanti, the wife of an African President. That’s right; Al Connors is so good, the CIA pays him to do stuff. Al explains: “Harlem is the experience playground for all people interested in becoming detectives.” One of the CIA guys is black, the other white. The movie doesn’t take its own bait, but only because the CIA doesn’t really do enough in the movie to go for any doublecrosses from them. Al takes Mrs. Ashanti (who he, supercool Han Solo-like, calls “princess”) to a hotel until the meeting with the Secretary of State tomorrow. The bad guys, goons who work for Big Daddy, try some things: a fake masseuse tries to dope Mrs. Ashanti and fails; a dude in chambermaid drag tries delivering room service and fails; two goons do a bum rush and fail. The Guy From Harlem is better than the CIA; they should know better.
Al and Mrs. Ashanti go to Jo Ann’s apartment. Jo Ann looks exactly like Britney Spears does now (what I call her “Hey, corn dogs, y’all!” era) and speaks like she’s received just enough stage training to be dangerous. SHE IS VERY LOUD AND ENOUNCIATES VERY CLEARLY. If she and HARRY the extra-loud mobster shared a scene, they’d have to mike it from the basement. Al asks Jo Ann if they can use the place, and maybe could she go to a hotel. This she does. Al gives Mrs. Ashanti a massage; after very slight protest, they go to bed together. Next morning, Al’s back in his office. We do not see Mrs. Ashanti or her part of the plot again.
Enter HARRY and his goons. HARRY’s goons are the best part of this movie, and you can tell they’re going for every second of onscreen business they can get. One of them even gets a couple short bits where he tries to seduce Al’s secretary, Sue. HARRY connects the movie’s wandering bits together by explaining that his daughter Wanda’s been kidnapped by Big Daddy and the ransom is a quarter million dollars and a bag of cocaine. HARRY wants Al to make the drop and recover Wanda, because, well, hell, you heard the CIA pays Al to do stuff, right? Who wouldn’t use that guy?
Big Daddy, it should be explained, is a cipher. HARRY knows he’s blonde (read: white), 6’2” and wears bands on his big muscled arms. But never mind that, says HARRY, you have to contact Jim at the gym (I can see the screenwriter giggling at this innovation) for more details on the drop. Jim’s a real prize. He drops N-bombs and acts like he’s in charge even after he is ambushed by Al in the easiest manner possible. He tells Al to go somewhere and wait for something. Al says sure and then waits in his car for Jim from the gym to get in his car and lead him right to Wanda. Jim is clearly stupid enough to let this happen.
From here it’s a lot of odd-looking fight scenes until Wanda is rescued. Wanda explains that while yes she was held against her will, she was also running away from HARRY because despite having a successful gambling operation, he’s started selling dope. She begs Al not to take her home yet. So they go to Jo Ann’s place. Jo Ann knows her role; she packs a bag and goes. We get a shower scene with Wanda and they make nice together. Next morning, Al turns Wanda over to HARRY and does his one dishonest thing. He tells HARRY that while Big Daddy didn’t get the ransom, HARRY ain’t getting it back. Why? Um, the cops got it. HARRY gets extra loud then accepts this explanation. Al even returns the $5000 retainer to HARRY as a clever apology for this.
Well, Big Daddy’s still out there, and this movie isn’t about to drop a thread like that. Al’s plan is to get the hell out of town, but Big Daddy calls him and Al decides to face him. Big Daddy arranges for Jim from the gym to act as a sniper to kill Al, but Al’s bigmouth secretary told Wanda about the meeting and Wanda had some of HARRY’s goons thwart this. Big Daddy proposes a man to man fight for his freedom. Al obliges and kicks his ass. Jim from the gym tries to intervene and is shot dead by HARRY’s goons. I bet theater audiences cheered at this. In the end, Al gets Wanda and all is happy.
A word now about the soundtrack: us old folks have made our share of wackajawacka jokes about 70s (usually porn but not always) soundtracks. This one is an excellent example of the genre. The title song has a slightly afro-cuban beat, even if the words are a bit clunky: “The Guy From Harlem/Feel the rumble/That cat’s a bad dude.” Oh, and when Mrs. Ashanti’s accent drops away and Al figures out she’s not really African? You’re not going insane; her voice doesn’t change at all. I’m here to help.
Stayed awake for the whole thing because Al is pretty damn cool and there’s room after room of the Ron Burgundy lifestyle, baby. Six wide awake eyes for this one. (One eye equals 15 minutes of runtime.)
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