Action Junkie – Trouble Man, and the trouble with men.
“His friends call him Mr. T. His enemies call for mercy!”
In the summer of 1971, the seminal action film Shaft smoothed its way onto the silver screen and exploded at the box office. Made for a budget of one and a quarter million dollars, the movie grossed over twelve million. By casting an African American male as the lead, John Shaft—a private investigator hired to find a crime boss’s missing daughter—and centering the story in the predominant African American neighborhood, Harlem, the filmmakers signaled the agency of an as yet untapped market, and inspired a new generation of filmmakers, most of whom made their movies outside of the Hollywood system, and yet reached a distribution level that established a new genre. It was the following year, during the fall and winter of 1972, that a group of films were released marking the birth of the Blaxploitation movement. Most of these films—Trouble Man, Across 110th St., Super Fly, and Hit Man, just to name a few—not only heavily borrowed from Shaft, but also from each other.
Actor-turned-director Ivan Dixon (The Spook Who Sat by the Door) released his feature film debut, Trouble Man, on November 1, 1972. Starring television actor Robert Hooks, Trouble Man is another take on the private investigator who gets embroiled in inner-city politics archetype. Known only as Mr. T., Hooks plays the character as stern and too-cool-for-school. He’s sophisticated, yet impatient with people who have lesser agendas then he. Mr. T. is a man of his community and has taken it upon himself to see that he looks after it; this also means he holds a private investigator’s license, like Shaft. Sharing a striking similarity to Across 110th St., this movie has the basic premise of: a group of masked gunmen are knocking off private gambling sessions populated by the community’s top hustlers. Instead of a police procedural that delves into race relations like Across 110th St., Trouble Man takes the Shaft route, as Mr. T. makes moves across L.A. looking for the robbers.
Trouble Man is not as polished of a film as Across 110th St. or Shaft. Much of that I feel is due in part to Dixon being from, until this film, a television directing background. Many of the scenes are staged much like a television show, with camera shots panning and zooming in a TV manner. The acting at times is rough. Hooks’ portrayal of a badass is so tense we are left questioning whether people respect Mr. T. or just fear him. Where’s the suave demeanor that makes up for bad attitude? Instead, Mr. T. is presented as a man who rules with an iron fist. Sure, he gives to the community, but just don’t expect him to smile while he’s doing it.
If this film is viewed in the manner of a time capsule, then Mr. T. can be seen as the representation of the desired proto-male of that moment in time. This is not exclusive to the Blaxploitation genre. Many action films around this period in time, the late 60s and early 70s, boasted male leads that were obstinate, cocksure, and, above all, beyond reproach. In 1967’s Point Blank, Lee Marvin embodied the enraged Alpha male on a hunt for revenge. Marvin’s character, Walker, is a single-minded anti-hero who embraces nihilism as a means for not just obtaining a goal, but as a way of existence in an underground world of violence and crime. Point Blank‘s tagline is the most telling of this:
“There are two kinds of people in his up-tight world: his victims and his women. And sometimes you can’t tell them apart.”
In the 1972 Sam Peckinpah film The Getaway, Steve McQueen plays Doc McCoy, a thief who gets caught. After his release, a series of revealing situations unfold, sending McCoy and his wife Carol on the run. As McCoy discovers the price of his freedom from prison and a double-edged nature about his relationship to Carol, he attempts to remain the unphased, in control man, who, we are told, ultimately has a bottom line that will not be compromised. However, if there is compromise then we are also told it is the woman’s doing, the Eve in the Garden of Eden, as is the case with Doc and Carol. Doc would just as soon be long gone if it were not for love, but this cannot be his responsibility, for he is the Alpha male; he is in charge, even of his own emotions. This is where I give credit to Steve McQueen; he plays his character with a quality of reserved turmoil. Just as the role demands of him, every time McQueen feels something, he lashes out with an angered decision showing his assertion of control.
The hero of these early action films is not one of compassion. In his cold world that not only cares little for him but tries to make him crumble beneath its weight, he has been afforded no space for a bleeding heart. In Get Carter (1971), Jack Carter is searching for the person or persons who might’ve murdered his brother. Jack is head-strong and foremost a bully, which is how he goes about his haphazard investigation. He presses and bullies until people cave. His rage, coupled with his agency to be the Alpha, leaves an opening of naïveté that follows him until, and in part allowing, the film’s conclusion. The Blaxploitation counterpart to Get Carter, Hit Man (1972), also based on the novel Jack’s Return Home, does one better on exposing the leading male archetype at its most blatant extreme.
In Hit Man, Jack is renamed Tyrone Tackett. As Tyrone searches for his brother’s killers, his naiveté is almost pinpointed to his main preoccupation, getting laid. Practically every woman Tyrone meets ends up in bed with Tyrone before the film’s end, often causing Tyrone to be distracted by the dangers that are coming towards him. Just like Jack in Get Carter, Tyrone is nihilistic when it comes to his quest for the murderer, which is best exemplified with the manner in which he deals with the character of Gozelda (Pamela Grier).