Revisiting 'Three the Hard Way' - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Revisiting 'Three the Hard Way'

Revisiting 'Three the Hard Way'

By Eugene S. Robinson

Fred Williamson, Jim Kelly and Jim Brown in "Three the Hard Way", 1974.
SourceEverett Collection


Because if Justin Bieber is this generation’s take on tough, we’re all in deep, deep trouble. 

By Eugene S. Robinson

On Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn in 1974, religion was happening.

And at the Albemarle Theatre on June 29, a Saturday, three days after it opened, my friends and I — along with every other black teen in Brooklyn — made the pilgrimage to join a line snaking out and down the sidewalk for a movie we’d all been talking about for months: Three the Hard Way .

Sure, there’d been the sophisticated élan of Gordon Parks Sr.’s Shaft (fun fact: His son Gordon Parks Jr. directed Three the Hard Way ), the story of a bell-bottom’d badass black detective . And on the other side of the swing, Superfly , about a drug dealer double-crossing the mob (also directed by Parks Jr.). There’d even been the first: a quasi art-house flick by Melvin Van Peebles, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song , that rivals anything by Alejandro Jodorowsky for being comfortably confusing. 

But if you wanted the slam dunk of well-styled action flicks, you had Three the Hard Way. It was the 1970s version of The Expendables,  chock-full of all the stars who mattered at the time: Fred “The Hammer” Williamson from Black Ceasar , Enter the Dragon ’s kung fu killer Jim Kelly , and NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown, who’d had mainstream success in The Dirty Dozen .

Alone? Their badass bonafides would choke the garden-variety tough guy.

Together? They were unstoppable.

And Saturday’s sidewalk on Flatbush was a testament to nothing else. The plot? Like it mattered. Neo-Nazi-esque white supremacists are set to deploy some kind of sickle-cell-disease-like infestation of water treatment plants in D.C., Detroit and L.A. with the express plan being the total annihilation of the black population. Which, with a steady stream of bombs, bullets, kicks, punches, dominatrixes on motorcycles and a rainbow coalition of black, white, Latino and Asian sidekicks, is beat way back. Beyond Brooklyn and the backwoods of ’Bama, leaving the world safe — at least for its three super-photogenic and charismatic stars.

The big three are on this case! They’re the only ones who can save their race!

– The movie’s official tagline

“That movie was literally like an explosion,” said CBS Radio writer Scott Sterling. “A bomb going off in the heads of every kid who had seen it and could appreciate the nuance of a black action hero . And not a lone wolf, either. But brothers working it out.”

It was irresistible. Even if the mainstream reviewers MovieMavericks  found it easier to resist, deriding its plot as “paper-thin and the action uninspired.” But if you were between the ages of 5 and 50, at least on that Saturday in Brooklyn in 1974, it was the largest cinematic deal in our big borough.

At the time, it was touted as the most expensive movie of its kind, costing $2 million to produce. But we’d venture to guess it was a good investment, since on that Saturday in June 1974, we had to pay to see it twice .


Because we were standing in our seats, screaming, and got kicked out the first time.

Yes. Just about that good.

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