Appellate Judge Tom Becker takes the NYC subway every day, so talk to him about a "Death Journey."
Sudden death in each fist!
"I'm not gonna kill you, Baby. You too good in the sack for that. I'm
just going to bruise you up a little."
Facts of the Case
Criminal mastermind Jack Rosewald (Patrick McCullough) is about to go on trial in New York, but the DA's case is weak. His two strongest witnesses have met with mysterious deaths—at least as "mysterious" as exploding cars and bullet-ridden bodies can be—and the trial is scheduled to begin in 48 hours. Their only hope is an accountant in California, Finley (Bernard Kuby), but how will this frightened George Costanza look-alike make it to New York in one piece?
Easy. Ex-cop and all-around badass Jesse Crowder (Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, Black Caesar) has been recruited to escort the doughboy safely to the East Coast. But does the tougher-than-tough Crowder stand a chance against Rosewald's gang of paunchy thugs? Not to mention the constant stream of foxy ladies forever throwing themselves in his path?
Fred Williamson was a football star who became a movie star thanks to blaxploitation classics like Three the Hard Way, That Man Bolt, and his signature role, Hammer. In addition to acting, Williamson also directed himself in a number of action films. Death Journey was one of four films he directed and starred in in 1976—the others were Mean Johnny Barrows, the action comedy Adios Amigo with Richard Pryor, and No Way Back.
Death Journey and No Way Back both followed the adventures of the Jesse Crowder character. Evidently, Williamson was trying to create a franchise like Richard Roundtree had done with Shaft and Ron O'Neal had done with Super Fly.
But Shaft was directed by Gordon Parks, from a script by Oscar winner Ernest Tidyman, and Super Fly was directed by Parks' son, Gordon Parks Jr. Unfortunately, Williamson was no Gordon Parks—or Gordon Parks Jr.
Death Journey is a surprisingly low-key affair, frequently laughable, and generally amateurish. It's violent in a half-baked way and sexy insofar as every woman from one coast to the other wants nothing more than to bed down with Fred Williamson. It's fun to a point, but its inept villains, badly staged fights and chases, and too-cool-for-this-universe hero barely sustain the meager 78-minute runtime.
Williamson's Crowder—who seems to only own button-down shirts with all the buttons missing (the better for you to see his heroic chest)—is tasked with getting the whiny Finley from LA to NYC. To do so, they take every mode of transportation known to man except covered wagons. Trains, planes, automobiles, and even Greyhound buses, each presents its own peril.
Cars, for instance, need to stop for gas, and as everyone knows, gangland assassins spend most of their time hanging out at gas stations waiting for prey. Fortunately for the assassins, there's not a lot of demand for gas, so they can fire merrily in the middle of the day at Crowder, Finley, the pump jockey, and a random woman without anyone calling the police. Fortunately for Finley, the assassins are using a strange, lightweight bullet, so that when someone standing in front of him gets shot point blank, the bullet does not pierce that person's body and hit Finley himself.
Even more fortunate is that these polyester-and-golf-shirt-wearing baddies carry out assassinations in unorthodox ways. While they have no trouble in general shooting anywhere, any time, occasionally they show ill-advised restraint, such as the scene where one shady fellow approaches Finley, takes him by the arm, leads him out of a building, onto the street, through a wooded area, and into a parking lot—all this while Crowder eyes him skeptically. Good thing Crowder finally figures out that the bulge in the guy's pocket does not mean he's happy to see Finley, and jumps in to save the day.
Of course, half the time this gang that can't shoot straight anyway just dispenses with guns—even when they're already drawn—to go hand-to-hand or foot-to-foot with The Hammer. Never a good idea.
This is pretty much the whole film. Crowder and Finley show up someplace, the bad guys are waiting for them, and an awkwardly staged fight scene ensues, all scored to a '70s theme that, like Williamson's 'stache, would be right at home in a porn movie of the era. Punches are thrown, and whether or not they connect, rest assured that the soundtrack will provide a thwack! noise. Crowder's frequent sex stops are surprisingly unsexy—I don't think there's any appreciable female nudity to be found here. Plot points remain unresolved, and a "surprise" ending is so dumb, you almost have to watch it twice to believe it.
Death Journey is yet another obscurity carefully resurrected by Code Red. This is the "Uncut Director's Edition," though at 78 minutes, I don't know how much cutting could have been done for this to have been released as a feature. According to the DVD case, the transfer is "Remastered in it's [sic] original scope ratio of 2.35:1 in 16X9, and mastered in HiDef from the original camera negatives." OK. The picture is a bit faded, and at one point pops oddly bright, but it's pretty clear and certainly watchable; definitely a good job for a low-budget film over 30 years old. Audio is something else again, weak, with dialogue (what little there is) often drowned out by music or background noise; subtitles would have been a blessing.
There are two main extras on this disc, and they are both great. Fred Williamson, along with a Code Red moderator, provides a must-hear commentary that swings from informative to funny to downright bizarre. If you have any doubt who is The Hammer—or, for that matter, who The Hammer was—check this out. We also get a lively, frequently funny, and very candid interview with Williamson from 2009. He's still sporting the 'stache and looking great. Even if the film isn't all it could be, the interview and commentary make this essential viewing.
Rounding out the set is the trailer for Death Journey, along with trailers for other Code Red offerings, the Williamson-directed Mean Johnny Barrows and No Way Out.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Hey, it's a Fred Williamson movie, you were expecting Shakespeare?
Another fun '70s relic unearthed by Code Red, and the world is a slightly better place. Not a great movie, or even an especially good one, but fun and funny.
I will not call The Hammer guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Code Red
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