Sidewinder’s View: “Mean Johnny Barrows” (1976) (SPOILERS)

Starring and directed by Fred Williamson, co-starring Stuart Whitman, Roddy McDowall, Elliott Gould, R.G. Armstrong.
 
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Mean Johnny (Fred Williamson) gets booted from the Army after punching out his lousy CO (who returns at the end of the movie to have a horribly inept excuse for a martial arts fight with Mean Johnny). Mugged and knocked out by a pair of street thugs, soon as he steps off the bus in L.A., Mean Johnny’s homeless and broke, unable to find a job until ignorant blowhard R.G. Armstrong…
 
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…agrees to employ him as a janitor at his gas station. Mean Johnny also crosses paths with mobster Stuart Whitman, whose crime family is at war with another family of gangsters.
 
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Whitman’s continually offering Mean Johnny a job as muscle in his gang, but Mean Johnny’s not really that mean and tells him he just doesn’t want that kind of work.
 
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So Whitman keeps asking. Politely. Mean Johnny keeps declining. Politely. The gangsters’ low-energy turf war continues and the rival crime family soon puts Whitman’s outfit at risk of extinction.
 
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Finally…FINALLY…during the last 20 minutes of the movie, Mean Johnny accepts Whitman’s high-paying job offer to whack out the rival crime family.
 
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It’s all fairly quick and not too sophisticated as Mean Johnny earns his pay, but he’s soon the victim of a double-cross and the story ends on a rather glum note, which, I guess, lets the audience know that CRIME DOESN’T PAY.
 
 
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Its basic plot reminded me of The Farmer, an obscure Revenge flick from 1977 I’ve never had the chance to see, but have been burning to see for the last decade or so since I first read about it on IMDb. I thought, with Fred Williamson…that supporting cast…that plot…
 
…how could it go wrong?
 
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Unfortunately, none of those selling points amounted to an entertaining movie. The pace was dreadfully slow and the plot resolution highly unsatisfying. Far too much time was spent on Williamson’s title character turning down the gangster’s job offer and taking abuse from his cranky old boss at the gas station. The other characters in the movie, the mobsters, anyway, really weren’t that mean, either.
 
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For this kind of story, populated with so many shady, crooked and criminal characters, there really wasn’t much dramatic tension. Elliott Gould shows up for an improvised cameo that added nothing to the plot…
 
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…but did add to the film’s 96-minute running time, as well as another name to Williamson’s marketable roster of well-known genre actors for the movie’s poster.
 
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The action sequences don’t consist of much more than a few slow-mo squib hits, some swerving cars, and some really lame martial arts choreography that plays like a Bruce Lee parody rather than something we’re meant to take seriously.
 
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I like Fred Williamson– he has a terrific screen presence and I loved his work in Black CaesarBucktownHammerVigilanteM*A*S*H
 
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…and I wanted to like this movie. I really did. That didn’t happen, unfortunately. I read somewhere years ago that when Fred Williamson appears in other peoples’ movies…
 
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…the viewer stands a fifty-fifty chance of coming away from the movie satisfied, but when Williamson appears in his own productions, the movie’s going to stink, almost guaranteed. After slogging through this one and The Big Score (1983), which was even more difficult to remain awake through, I’m inclined to agree with that assessment.
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