"A black-belt international courier tries to deliver $1 million without getting killed."
— Angus Kohm (@AngusKohm) June 6, 2020
Back in the late ’80s (or maybe it was the early ’90s), I remember coming home from work just before midnight, making myself a late night dinner/snack of frozen pizza, and sitting down in front of the TV to watch whatever happened to be on. There were a couple of channels that showed movies at midnight, and I would often put one on, not even knowing what it was if I missed the opening credits, and get caught up. On this particular night it was That Man Bolt (1973). I knew who Fred Williamson was, and had already enjoyed movies like Vigilante (1982), Black Caesar (1973) and Three the Hard Way (1974), but I had never heard of That Man Bolt.
I knew right away that I was onto something, when Fred’s character, Jefferson Bolt, was told by a mysterious government figure that he would have to work for them if he wanted to get his valuable (perhaps incriminating) documents returned to him. This mysterious organization had kept Bolt locked up for a week while they searched his home for the important papers. In the end, they had to use a metal detector to find his safe – which, as we can all see, was hidden behind a picture on the wall.
I think I fell off my chair. laughing. They couldn’t find a safe that was hidden behind a picture on the wall?! Every safe I’d ever seen in the movies had been hidden behind a picture on the wall. But these guys were checking, where – behind the sofa? Under the kitchen sink? And if it hadn’t been for the use of that metal detector, the location of Bolt’s safe would still be a mystery to them.
I was less than ten minutes into That Man Bolt, and I knew I’d struck cinema gold – and without the use of a metal detector.
That Man Bolt was probably made to cash in on the recent success of the so-called Blaxploitation genre. Movies like Shaft (1971) were very successful and led to sequels like Shaft’s Big Score! (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973). Apparently, Universal signed Fred Williamson to star in three movies as Jefferson Bolt, so they clearly intended That Man Bolt to be the start of a movie series (or franchise, as people now say). It probably also helped that Fred Williamson had been successful in Black Caesar (1973), which had led to its own sequel Hell Up in Harlem (1973).
Universal seemed to be aiming for something a little closer to the James Bond, international intrigue kind of feel as opposed to the more typical urban crime setting of many Blaxploitation films. James Bond. Jefferson Bolt. Bond. Bolt. Coincidence? Look at one of the tag lines found on a movie poster for That Man Bolt: “He’s “Bonded”! “
Setting the film in British Hong Kong, where Bolt lives, and casting British character actor Byron Webster as Griffiths, the mysterious government man who forces Bolt into service, gives the film a more British feel. And even though Bolt asks Griffiths if he is CIA, it’s obvious that he would more likely be on her majesty’s secret service.
Another market that the movie seemed to be aiming for was the martial arts crowd. Bolt is described as a black belt, and some of the movie posters say this:
SEE these famous MARTIAL ARTS experts in action: Mike Stone–World Professional Light Heavyweight, Karate Champion, Ken Kazama–Japan Kick-boxing Champion, Emil Farkas–European Black Belt Karate Champion, and David Chow–Former California State Judo Champion.
I suppose that the success of Bruce Lee and Enter the Dragon (1973) may have had a hand in that.
Considering everything that it had going for it, That Man Bolt seems like it should have been a surefire success. I’m not sure how it did at the box-office, but none of the sequels were ever made, and Jefferson Bolt did not become an iconic character. As much as I enjoyed the movie on late night TV all of those years ago (and on home video several times since), the truth is that it’s not as good as it needs to be. It has moments of brilliance, and Fred Williamson is perfect as the charismatic, clever, tough and capable action hero. But it never rises up to the level of James Bond, Shaft, or Black Caesar. Perhaps if they had made the sequels, each one would have improved and Jefferson Bolt would have gone down in history. Even James Bond had an iffy start with Dr. No (1962). It’s a good movie, but most fans agree that From Russia with Love (1963) and Goldfinger (1964) were better. If they had simply stopped after Dr. No, would people still be talking about James Bond now? Who knows?
I have always had a soft spot for That Man Bolt (1973), and I’ve been a fan of Fred Williamson since I first saw William Lustig’s Vigilante when I was 12 or 13. So, Jefferson Bolt will always be a welcome visitor on a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn.
And I, for one, wish that they had made the sequels. But oh well… we’ll just have to make do with one “Big, bad and beautiful” piece of #NotQuiteClassicCinema.