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With: Alex Rocco, Hari Rhodes, Vonetta McGee, Ella Edwards, Scatman Crothers, Rudy Challenger
Written by: Orville H. Hampton
Directed by: Arthur Marks
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 106
Date: 03/19/2013

Detroit 9000 (1973)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Motor Gritty

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder Releasing has done it again. I really admire how Tarantino uses his clout to give a second chance to movies that never really had a first chance, whether it be great imports like Sonatine (1993) or Chungking Express (1994), or old B-movies like Switchblade Sisters (1975) or The Beyond (1981). His latest Detroit 9000, is a blaxploitation classic that no doubt influenced Tarantino in some of his own work.

Most blaxploitation movies have fallen under attack for their gratuitous use of language, violence, and sex. Even though these movies, like Shaft (1971), Superfly (1972), Coffy (1973), and Foxy Brown (1974), give black characters power and make them the focus of the story, some fear that they provide negative role models. Not to mention that most of the movies were directed or produced by whites, thus the 'expoitation'. Whether or not all this is true, Detroit 9000 seems to exist outisde this debate and is simply solid entertainment. For its low budget, silly dialogue, and second-string acting, it's a pretty balanced and smart movie.

Detroit 9000 opens at a festival celebrating black heroes in history. Scatman Crothers (with hair!) plays a preacher who emcee's the event. He introduces Aubrey Hale Clayton (Rudy Challenger) who is running for Michigan's first black governer. Clayton turns the event into an impromptu fundraiser. Masked hoods with white jackets and guns burst into the room and steal the loot; instantly everyone wants to know whether the culprits were black or white. The case is assinged to black Sgt. Jesse Williams (Hari Rhodes) and white Lt. Danny Bassett (Alex Rocco, who played Moe Green in The Godfather). The only clue they have is a dead, legless Indian in a trunk. From there the movie spins out a pretty decent mystery story. (For those who are curious, "9000" is supposedly the police code for "officer in trouble".)

Bassett is concerned that if he catches black crooks he'll take the heat from the black community which, in Detroit, outnumbers the white community. If the crooks are white, there'll be hell to pay for allowing whites to disrupt a black event. But the ending manages some ambiguity that leaves us wondering.

The real reason to go see Detroit 9000 isn't for the way it handles these issues, but for its energy and imagination. Filmmakers today spend a lot of time and money trying to re-create that special sleazy feel of the 70's, and here it is for real -- bad clothes, bad food, bad cars, and a grimy city. Director Arthur Marks (who went on to make the Pam Grier films Friday Foster and Bucktown) uses Detroit locations well. You get a great view of that steely city. His many chase scenes are well-shot as characters run through railroad yards, cemeteries, alleyways, and crumbling buildings. Some of the violent scenes are given an extra snap by editing in a quick point-of-view shot just before the crash, so that we feel involved.

If I had stumbled across Detroit 9000 on late night TV, I would have been pretty happy. And now here's a chance to see it in a movie theater. On the other hand, I couldn't help thinking that Rolling Thunder could use its clout to release some real treasures from among Tarantino's favorites, like Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo, Brian De Palma's Hi, Mom!, Jack Hill's Coffy, Jean-Luc Godard's Band of Outsiders, Jonathan Demme's Caged Heat, or Marlon Brando's One-Eyed Jacks. In either case, here's hoping that Rolling Thunder stays in business and continues to unearth movie gems for a long time to come.

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