Directed by and starring Fred 'The Hammer' Williamson, Mean Johnny Barrows (originally titled Peace Is Hell) is a pretty interesting low budget film that Williamson made independently around Los Angeles without permits or really much of a distribution plan. He got the picture made on his own terms, and his stamp is all over it.
Williamson plays the titular Johnny Barrows and when we meet him he's just been kicked out of the army for punching out his commanding officer. The fact that he was completely justified doesn't mean squat to the army, and he's been let out with a dishonorable discharge. Once back on American soil, his luck doesn't improve much. He gets whacked over the head by a mugger and is later picked up by a pair of racist cops who bring him in on false charges of public drunkenness. Thankfully the police captain is a fan of his from back in his college football days, and he lets him out. Wandering the streets without a dollar to his name or a place to stay, he eventually meets up with a mobster named Mario Racconi (Stuart Whitman) who takes him to meet his father, Don Racconi (Luther Adler). They want him to work for them as a hitman, but he's not interested.
Johnny eventually lands a job cleaning toilets at a rundown Shell station (run by R. G. Armstrong) but when he isn't paid a fair wage, he calls it quits and later, once again, finds himself in trouble with the cops. Meanwhile, a rival gang, the Da Vince family made up of Tony Da Vince (Roddy McDowall), his father Don Da Vince (Anthony Caruso) and his older brother of Carlo Da Vince (Mike Henry). When Barrows learns that the Da Vince's are selling dope to black and Latino customers out of a fake flower shop, Mario's curvy blonde girlfriend, Nancy (Jenny Sherman), is able to convince Johnny to work for them and help put an end to this mutual problem of theirs.
The pacing of Williamson's 1976 directorial debut may not move at light speed but the film mixes elements of the black action films that Williamson was known for (and wanting to at least partially distance himself from at this point in his career) with elements of the mafia movies that were being churned out in the wake of Francis Ford Coppola's success with The Godfather. Throw in some interesting politics and an impressive supporting cast (Elliott Gould shows up in a brief but amusing cameo as a hobo calling himself Professor Theodore Rasputin Waterhouse while a very young but instantly recognizable Leon Isaac Kennedy shows up in the opening Vietnam scene!) and you can see how this hodgepodge of a film can be quite interesting.
Whitman is as reliable as ever in his mobster role, as he's fairly tough looking and while maybe not the most Italian looking guy Williamson could have cast, he gets the job done. More curious is the casting of Roddy McDowall as Tony Da Vince. McDowall, doing his best to hide his accent but not always succeeding, doesn't quite look like the womanizer he's supposed to be, no matter how flamboyant his fashions sense may be or how much spray on tan and grease he's got in his hair. He's completely out of place in the film, but nevertheless endlessly amusing when he is in it. Jenny Sherman, who would pop up in all manner of television shows for a good ten years after this movie was made, makes her big screen debut here and doesn't do bad in the part. She's sexy enough and carries herself with plenty of confidence so that we can buy her in the role, which becomes increasingly important as the story plays out.
This is, however, Williamson's show and he doesn't let us forget that. He puts his impressive screen presence to good work here, handling both the more dramatic aspects of the story and the more action intensive scenes with ease. He's angry enough and tough enough that he works as the leading man and carries the film for the most part. Place all of this alongside some fantastic mid-seventies Los Angeles location shooting and set it to a bass heavy score by Motown group Gordon Staples And The String Thing and it all starts to come into place. The picture could have a bit more action and definitely feels dated in some regards but it still plays surprisingly well. It's not a perfect film but it's plenty entertaining and often times fairly smart.
NOTE: THIS REVIEW IS BASED ON A TEST DISC THAT MAY OR MAY NOT REPRESENT FINISHED RETAIL PRODUCT.
Code Red presents Mean Johnny Barrows in a good 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. There are a few scenes where the reds look really overblown but aside from that the color reproduction looks pretty accurate. Detail is fine for an older low budget feature and only mild print damage is noticeable. You can't really call it reference quality but given the age and obscurity of the picture there's really nothing to complain about here, the movie looks pretty good. The transfer is taken from the original negative and offers the film up in what is generally a clean, clear and well authored (and completely uncut) version.
The audio chores are handled by a fine English language Dolby Digital Mono track. There's the odd pop in the mix but if you're not listening for them you're probably not going to notice them. Dialogue is easy enough to understand and the score and sound effects are all well balanced. The film shows its age in that it has got a fairly limited range but you can't fault it for that. For an older mono mix, there's nothing to complain about here, it sounds quite good.
The extras on this disc start off with a feature length commentary track that puts director/star Williamson in front of the mic to talk with moderators William Olsen and Scott Spiegel about how this project came to be and how he wound up getting the various participants together to work on it with him. Williamson talks about making California look like Vietnam, how McDowell and Gould wound up in the movie in the first place, and about working with a young Leon Isaac Kennedy (who was supposed to be interviewed for the disc, but that interview is nowhere to be found). Williamson talks about the low budget film industry of the time quite fondly, which is a theme that carries over to the Hammer Time (19:05 featurette which is essentially an interview with Williamson that covers his football career, how he wound up in films, his thoughts on the Blaxploitation phenomena of the seventies, and how digital filmmaking has changed the low budget movie making landscape (and not necessarily for the better in his opinion). Williamson is in good spirits here and surprisingly doesn't look much different at all than he does in the feature. There's a bit of cross over between the interview and the commentary, but between the two there's really no stone left unturned. Williamson's memory is sharp and he's more than happy to share his stories here.
Aside from that, look for a trailer for the feature, trailers for a bunch of other Code Red DVD titles past, present and future, and a pretty standard menu screen.
Surprisingly more poignant than most of the other 'blaxploitation' movies being churned out around the same time period, Mean Johnny Barrows may not move as quickly as some would like but it does a pretty decent job building both character and story development. While the film is ever so obviously rooted in the time in which it was made, it's still an interesting and entertaining picture that Williamson's fan base should definitely enjoy. Code Red's DVD looks and sounds pretty good and contains some interesting extras as well, making this one easy to recommend for fans of low budget seventies independent/exploitation cinema.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.