by Heath Holland
By 1976, Fred Williamson was already a Blaxploitation icon with some of his biggest roles already behind him. The former football star had been a part of the cast of the Robert Altman film MASH before going on to headline genre classics like Hammer, Black Caesar, Hell Up in Harlem, Three the Hard Way, and some westerns with names I’m not going to write here. By 1976, Williamson was known as Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, and had carved out a reputation as a black action hero and lead performer. Along with Jim Brown, he was a justified man of action in a changing movie climate, representing strength and virility in roles that were crafted to make one audience cheer and another to feel fear.
Williamson is one of the most prolific actors of the seventies, starring in six movies in 1976 alone. With Mean Johnny Barrows, though, he did something he hadn’t done before and assumed the mantle of director for the first time. Williamson directed a total of four films in ’76, so many that it almost seems like he was working on multiple movies at the same time. As far as I’m aware, though, it was Mean Johnny Barrows that hit screens first.
Williamson is able to cast his film with some interesting faces. The mobsters and their connections are played by Roddy McDowell (Planet of the Apes, Fright Night), Stuart Whitman (The Longest Day, Night of the Lepus), and character actor Anthony Caruso (I know him best from an episode of the original run of Star Trek, the mafia-themed “A Piece of the Action”). An actor Williamson had worked closely with in an earlier project, R. G. Armstrong (White Lightning, Children of the Corn) appears as yet another dead-end in the path of Johnny Burrows. Williamson even got his MASH co-star Elliot Gould (!!!) to appear for a short scene that was improvised and filmed on location in half an hour. An actress named Jenny Sherman makes her movie debut here as a potentially-dangerous woman who is caught up in the mafia game. Sherman fits right into this movie, and she went on to guest-star in virtually every important television series of the late seventies and early eighties, but I think this is her only movie credit. That bums me out, because I think she had the potential to have been a player in other B-movies like this one.
Saying this movie is rough is not a condemnation, though. This movie is well-regarded by B-movie fans for offering the thing that we want when we watch exploitation films, but also for trying to be about something more. Barrows is sympathetic; he’s physically imposing, he’s good looking, and he is always justified in his violence. He’s just standing up for himself, refusing to lay down his dignity. We understand him and his inability to catch a break, and we’re frustrated when door after door gets slammed in his face. The movie makes it very clear (just like the movie First Blood would make it clear) that the soldiers coming back from Vietnam got a raw deal. They came back from war to a life that was just as challenging as the one they’d left on the battlefield, just in a different way. This was a very relevant topic in 1976, and Williamson succeeds at this element of his film more than he succeeds at the crowd-pleasing action that rounds this movie out.
Rambo: First Blood Part II than they feel like First Blood.
For me, this is more of a curiosity. It’s a necessary piece of the Fred Williamson catalog, the movie where he first attempted to tell the story himself. The potential is there. The message is there. The action is there, too, but these things don’t always sit well against each other. It feels to me like Williamson finds himself boxed into a certain kind of movie by the audience’s expectations, and he’s trying to serve them as well as himself. Honestly, I’m more interested in the first hour of this movie than the action that ends it. Ultimately, Mean Johnny Barrows feels important for what it is, showcasing Williamson’s transition from action hero in front of the camera to thoughtful filmmaker behind it.
Read more of Heath Holland's writing at his blog Cereal at Midnight!