Cold as ice, hard as steel, and dressed to thrill, a private investigator known only as "Mr. T" (Robert Hooks) is hired by two thugs to find out who's stealing form their gambling operation. Armed with deadly martial arts mastery and an arsenal of weapons, T battles his way through a dangerous maze of violence, turf wars and even murder - while still finding time for the ladies. Packed with original soul music by Marvin Gaye, movies just don't get any cooler than Trouble Man!
“If you can’t trust the police who can you trust?”
Between ‘Shaft‘ and ‘Super Fly’ there was ‘Trouble Man’. Caught in the middle of a genre defining badass and a coke dealer who launched pimp fashion, Ivan Dixon’s 1972 crime thriller would be completely forgotten if it weren’t for a killer soundtrack. Starring Robert Hooks, Paul Winfield, and Ralph Waite, ‘Trouble Man’ is a crime thriller trying to shake the bounds of blaxploitation to offer a film that transcends the tropes of the genre. Like Pam Grier’s ‘Sheba, Baby’, ‘Trouble Man’ didn’t find critical acclaim but with audiences it played well. Finally there were mature films with fully realized characters that the black community could support.
The film opens on Mr. T (Robert Hooks) leaving the house of a bikini clad woman lounging by the pool. He hops into his white Lincoln Continental. Shades on. A smooth Marvin Gaye groove drops. So incredibly cool! No swagger, no ego. T doesn’t need to be cool, he just IS cool. Sporting $300 suits and an unshakable moral code T is a hard nosed P.I. with a heart of gold. He’ll shake down a man just on principle. If he’s got a chance to walk away with a cash bribe he won’t take it. He just wants his price plus a replacement suit. Unlike most blaxploitation flicks Mr. T spends most of his time staring down his aggressors and posturing rather than busting heads with ridiculous kung fu. Sure he’ll land a few kicks during a brawl, but it’s clear that T isn’t trained in the martial arts like our hero Dolemite.
T is hired by Chalky Price (Paul Winfield) and Pete Cockrell (Ralph Waite) who run an underground craps game is getting knocked off by armed hoodlums. When the bodies start piling up they need someone to take out the competition. When T plants himself in the game all hell breaks loose. Shots are fired and by the end of the night there’s a dead body and T is the prime suspect. Framed for murder, T sets out to clear his name while keeping the cops, hired thugs, and poolhall junkies off his trail. Also in the mix is T’s main squeeze Cleo (Paula Kelly). Unlike other offerings from the time she isn’t the raucous buxom woman I’d expect to be on Mr. T’s arm. Working as a touring lounge singer she seems to have her life together. A nice change of pace for this role in a blaxploitation film. It’s unfortunate she doesn’t have more to do than just wait around for T to call her.
Where ‘Trouble Man’ succeeds is in its dedication as hard-boiled detective story. When talking to white cops T explains clearly that he has a license to carry a gun (which he doesn’t) and a private investigator license which grants him law library access so he knows when they’re bending the law. Never before has an action hero ever touted the importance of visiting a library. I love it! As T navigates his way through the frame job Chalky and Pete assembled we’re taken from rotten pool halls to the gritty streets of L.A and even to luxury penthouses. Unfortunately ‘Trouble Man’ meanders a bit too much for my liking. Extended shots of T’s closet as he pieces together his suit may seem slick, but it's just tiring after the same methodology is applied to a post-coital nap to collect his thoughts.
‘Trouble Man’ is a typical 70s crime thriller. However this blaxploitation film has had the exaggerated veneer removed leaving a solid film. ‘Trouble Man’ is just as good as any P.I. film from the 70s or any crime thriller you’ve seen that ripped off ‘Dirty Harry’. Films like ‘Shaft’ resonated with audiences because he offered a lasting visual appeal and an iconic theme song made for radio play. Gaye’s musical contribution to ‘Trouble Man’ blended into the film’s texture rather than creating a ‘JAWS’-like moment of recognition. The ‘Trouble Man’ score would be Gaye’s twelfth studio album and to this day remains a keystone in the soul genre. If you find yourself more interested in the music than the film I can’t say I blame you.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 ‘Trouble Man’ arrives with a decent image transfer. Fine film grain is present with black levels solid throughout the feature. Colors aren’t pronounced but unfortunately appear muted at times. I found the image to be soft which might be a result of some noise reduction, but it didn’t distract me from the film.
The DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio track is passable. Hisses and pops are noticeable. Volume adjustment is necessary during some dialogue sequences so keep that remote handy! Gunshot effects bounce through the sound mix easily. The jazzy scoring from Marvin Gaye comes across as tinny and limited but still enjoyable.
Audio Commentary: Film Historians Nathaniel Thompson and Howard Berger provide an in-depth examination of ‘Trouble Man’. Super fascinating stuff here.
Trouble Man (SD) (2:30)
Truck Turner (SD) (5:13)
Across 110th Street (SD) (2:58)
Cotton Comes to Harlem (SD) (2:11)
Report to the Commissioner (SD) (2:21)
'Trouble Man' is an entertaining thriller that plays well without quotable fanfare or exaggerated racial divides hijacking an otherwise enjoyable film. Those looking for more sleaze or social strife won’t find it in this slow burn noir. Thankfully the groovy scoring saves this film when the momentum slows to a creep. Dixon’s film may be predictable detective yarn, but with committed performances and gorgeous photography ‘Trouble Man’ deserves another look. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray brings to the stage an overlooked gem in 70s crime cinema with a respectable A/V presentation and a cinephile-worthy commentary track. Recommended.