Lady Cocoa (1975)
Another hip jive Blaxploitation classic today, heck, might do a whole month of these just cuz I can. I love these sorts of movies, maybe it's the disco soundtrack or all the polyester and suede, maybe it's just the afros and the sideburns, but whatever their appeal, I can't seem to get enough of them. And since you are my captive audience (I've disabled the exit button, Number Six...) you are going to like them also whether you want to or not.
On to the show...
We open at the Nevada State Prison in Reno, to meet our titular Lady Cocoa. She's played by nearly-famous Vegas lounge act Lola Falana, who looks like a black Kelly Ripa and acts like Elizabeth Taylor in her prime. Cocoa is currently rotting in prison on a contempt of court charge for not cooperating with the Feds on their investigation of her mobster boyfriend from back in New York (he's trying to move into the Nevada racketeering business).
On a side note, this movie was filmed in winter in northern Nevada, which is quite cold and snowy. It's nice to see Nevada portrayed in some other way than the hot and dusty Las Vegas desert scene that Hollywood shoves at us.
The High Desert is awful pretty.
Cocoa has had a change of heart and is now willing to turn state's against her boyfriend and the DA has her testifying tomorrow in a blockbuster show trial in the state capitol of Carson City. Since mafia witnesses tend to be targets, they leave Cocoa in her cell overnight and ring it with tanks and atomic cannons an...wait, what? No, they let her leave the prison and walk around in the open for the night? Ok, so Cocoa's deal was one last night on the town in exchange for testimony the next morning, but that doesn't mean the cops have to provide such minimal security, right? They could have a dozen SWAT team commandos in a tight phalanx around her and then 175 other cops in a steel perimeter ring. I mean, she HAS to survive until morning, they keep telling us this over and over. Huh, just two cops with her? And one is a portly, limping 70-year old man just weeks shy of retirement and the other is just a young beat cop? Yeah, that makes sense.
Anyway, so they go to the King's Casino in North Lake Tahoe, and register as man and wife (why the subterfuge?) while the Old Cop gets his own room down the hall. [Editor Pam: I think at the time this movie was made, respectable hotels didn't yet allow a man and a woman to share a room if they weren't married.] It's apparent in the first five minutes that Cocoa just wants to have fun and doesn't care about anything or anyone but herself (being out of jail doesn't excuse her behavior). She's constantly bitching and whining and complaining and threatening to take back her testimony unless the cops bend to her every whim. She takes showers constantly to "wash off the prison smell" and frequently quotes (out of context) from French philosophy books and Post-Modernist art history texts to make herself seem smarter than she is. I hate people who do that. Oh, she is such a bee-yotch, her story arc better be one of softening and redemption or I'm going to be really pissed.
The beat cop is named Doug and he's played by Gene Washington, who at the time was an All-Pro wide receiver for the '49ers (a lot of football players dabbled in acting in the '70s, especially in genre films like this). He's a pretty rotten actor, however, and his face seems frozen into place in most scenes (emote, damn you, emote!). Did you know that Washington is currently Commissioner of the National Football League and romantically linked to Condoleezza Rice?
Doug's job is a thankless disaster thanks to Cocoa's spoiled diva behavior. Between her pouting and raging and his stony face and general stiffness, I'm going nuts. Cocoa just won't give him a break. Doug's a Vietnam vet and she pounds on him for this, taking shots about his authority issues and making fun of his war wounds. Jesus, I'm not a proponent of violence against women at all, but she really needs a backhand. But he holds it in as she beats him like a rented mule, trying to get a reaction out of him like a bratty teenager. Still, it should come as no surprise that they end up in love by the third act (oops, belated spoiler alert!).
Don't do it, man, it's not worth it.
She drags Doug down to buy a cocktail dress and ends up gambling. Of course, Cocoa is an ace at 21 and wins a bunch of chips (yawn). The scenes on the casino floor are pretty typical for Hollywood, but in my experience casinos are about 95% retirees in NASCAR t-shirts with hollow, dead eyes gambling away their pension checks (the other 5% are a mixed bag of hookers, hardcore gamblers, and lung cancer patients). I'm still waiting for something, anything, to make me like Cocoa. Filmmaking 101 says that you have to give the audience something positive about your main protagonist so they can sympathize with her actions. Not here, 45 minutes in and she's still a caustic, prickly, arrogant snake. Even frickin' Darth Vader turned softy at the end.
Later, Cocoa gets Doug to rub lotion on her back, which is totally innocent, we all have areas of our bodies that we can't reach and only a handsome black man can caress. What? They talk about Cocoa's boyfriend and she gives the best line in the movie in answer to Doug's question about how she got involved with him, "How does anyone get involved in anything?". True that, true that. Cocoa tries to seduce him (she's halfway there anyway, being all nekkid and stuff) and while Doug's hormones get the best of him for a second, he backs off, ever the professional. When he does, Cocoa yells and insults his manhood and treats him like dirt (god, I fucking hate her). She then demands to go down to the casino lounge to eat and dance, and she won't take no for an answer.
Go put your pants on, woman.
Ok, I've had enough, screw this. I know the whole point of Blaxploitation movies is strong female characters who stand up for themselves in sassy ways, but I'm not going to sit though this crap any longer. My intern Kelby will now finish this off.
Kelby: Wha? Oh hell no, no way, not in my contract.
Me: Do it.
Kelby: No. What do I know about women anyway, remember you had my balls cut off? Said we were going to Red Lobster and ended up at the vet with the snippy-snippy? Remember that? Good times, eh? Finish it yourself, I have hairballs to hack.
Me: Fine, I'll finish it, but I don't want to.
Kelby: Suck it up.
Ok, back to the movie. There are indeed two henchmen stalking Cocoa, sent out here by her mobster boyfriend to keep an eye on her (and kill her if need be). There's a short, balding Italian guy and Mean Joe Greene (crikey!) and their schtick is that they never speak, even to each other, and instead communicate with hand gestures and shrugs (actually, a refreshingly unique quirk). They've been following them since leaving prison and have checked into a room opposite Cocoa's so they can spy on her with the scope from their sniper rifle. Yes, you read that right, sniper rifle, with which they could have just shot at her one of a thousand opportunities as she walks around in front of the windows. Instead they just content themselves with staring at her little A-cup boobs.
Mean Joe just won a Super Bowl the same year as this movie, no joke.
So Cocoa drags Doug downstairs. Down in the lounge, crowded with polyester and muttonchops, they find a table and jive to the house band. Oddly, the band plays an instrumental version of "Pop Goes the Weasel", which is sampled throughout the film for background music cues (the film's alternate title is Pop Goes the Weasel, by the way). They meet a young newlywed couple (Eddie and Marie) who strike up a chit-chat with them for no good reason. Cocoa sees across the room her boyfriend's henchmen (the silent thugs) and freaks out, suddenly realizing that she really might be in danger after all. Instead of telling Doug, however, she takes her new girlfriend's (Marie's) offer to go up to her room and have a toke ("great Turkish stuff!").
Meet and greet.
Once there, however, Marie locks her in! Uh-oh, this is trouble. In the room sits Cocoa's murderous gangster boyfriend from Harlem! To her credit, Cocoa thinks quick on her feet and manages to talk her way out of trouble, telling him that she just said she was going to testify to get out of jail, she'd never betray his love. The mobster seems to accept this, and sends her off with a kiss, but as soon as she's out of the room he tells the henchman to kill her off (he has a new girl anyway, one with a bit more meat on her).
Cocoa plays a crafty hand.
Back in her own room Cocoa tries to calm down (Doug is still running around looking for her downstairs, in a scene that just simply couldn't happen in our cellphone era). Unfortunately for her she gets too close to the windows and the henchmen from across the street open fire on her. They miss her, however, but peg an innocent maid who got in the way (giving us yet another example of insta-kill stomach wounds). Doug and the Old Cop show up now and for some inexplicable reason the killers stop shooting, even though their target is still in the room and they have equally clear shots on the cops. You see this a lot in these sorts of movies, where the bad guys' initial shot misses and they just run off without trying another, it's like there's some unwritten henchman rule that they can only try one method at a time, and if that initially fails then they have to run away to plan something totally different. In a surprising twist, a distraught Cocoa admits to Doug that she wasn't lying to her boyfriend, she really wasn't planning on testifying. She just wanted some time out of the jail and never intended on being a stoolie, though that's probably changed now that she sees that her (now ex-) boyfriend wants her dead.
She does have some emotional range as an actress, I'll grudgingly admit that.
Doug runs down to head off Eddie and Marie (he thinks they are the shooters). He catches them as they are getting into their orange Datsun coupe and a wicked fight explodes in the parking lot (it's late at night, so it's pretty empty). Gene Washington is vastly better at the physical stunts than the talking stuff, not surprisingly, and he does a pretty good job at the running and the shooting and the diving and stuff. The highlight is Eddie driving through the open front doors into the casino! Amusing, yes, but not at all like in The Blues Brothers, as Eddie drives very carefully through the casino lobby (might not even have the engine on, hard to tell).
Demerits for staying on the carpet and for not smashing any fruit carts.
After getting through the casino without causing any more damage than knocking down a cute waitress, they're back outside. Marie ends up out of the car at some point and she hangs onto the b-pillar as Eddie drives off again. He loses control and runs into a swimming pool. Watch as the stuntwoman playing Marie rides the jumping car up over the fence and into the swimming pool, leaping off the car at the last second and into the water. Really excellent stunt work there, best I've seen in a while.
Jumping in the pool.
Marie gets out and runs into the casino, but Eddie is trapped in the car at bottom of the pool, his seatbelt jammed. Why do seatbelts always jam at inopportune moments, like when the four-headed monster is approaching or the dump truck is barreling down on them, why don't they ever jam when you've arrived at the supermarket to buy some Nutella and wheat bread or you're fifteen minutes early to work? I've been driving for 25 years and have had a dozen cars and I've never had a seatbelt jam on me. Have any of you? What's that old Chuck Berry song again?
"Riding along in my calaboose, still trying to get her belt a-loose. All the way home I held a grudge, for the safety belt that wouldn't budge..."
Ok, by this point we have a gunfight in the parking lot, a drive through the casino, a crash into a pool, and still no cops have shown up. Are there no casino security guards? Did no one think to call the cops when the bullets started flying? Really? Doug chases Marie into one of the casino's bathrooms and they have another gunfight in there (that no one notices, despite the fact that the casino floor is still busy). Doug wins the battle and is shocked to see that Marie was really a man in drag (what the hell?). We are treated to a really lovely scene as Doug unbuttons the corpse's blouse and unhooks its bra and shakes out its stuffing. Real classy stuff, right there.
Don't look! Chicks on the potty!
The Old Cop now gets Cocoa and Doug in his Buick and drives the 30 miles back to Carson City where they will be safer (where they should have stayed...). They spot a car tailing them (the mute henchmen in a Caddy) and instead of just driving faster (it's just 30 miles) they decide to have Doug and Cocoa jump out around a blind corner while the Old Cop lures them off. Couldn't they just drive back to Lake Tahoe's police department? This is where a cellphone would come in handy, and no radio in the Old Cop's car?
I positively HATE scenes shot in the dark, no matter what the script calls for.
Cocoa hotwires a station wagon that was sitting alongside the road. You see this in tons of old movies, just how easy was it to steal a car in ye olden days? [Editor Pam: I have it on good authority that it really was pretty easy in the olden, that is pre-1960s, days, but by the 1970s it was harder, and today it's close to impossible. I'm taking my source's word for this, as I've never tried it myself. I've heard of starting cars by shoving a screwdriver in the ignition and turning it, but I have no idea if it works.] They drive down to the marina to Doug's buddy's boat to hide out until morning. I find it odd that all the boats at the marina are still in the water in the dead of winter (if this is when this scene was filmed, which I doubt), and not slipped and drained. Personally, when winter comes, I take my own yacht down to Cozumel, they have gated marinas to keep the...ahem, local flavor away.
On the boat, she takes a shower and they talk. Cocoa is depressed and strangely polite now, she knows her boyfriend is a coldhearted killer and she has seen a new side of Doug. And so, with just nine minutes left in the movie, Cocoa and Doug finally resolve all that simmering sexual tension and do the deed. Now sex scenes in movies are usually dull, lifeless affairs where the passion is clearly being faked and the moaning and huffing seems like it's written on cue cards. But not here, the sex is quite realistic and steamy, almost like there was something off-screen going on between Lola Falana and Gene Washington that couldn't help but show up on screen. Either that or they decided on their own to "sell" the scene, ala Mickey Rourke and Carre Otis. Who knows?
Let's get it on...
But the mute killers are here now, somehow having found their location. Best shot of the film here as they row across the lake to the pier in a little boat, with Mean Joe Greene standing in the prow like George Washington in a fur-lapel pimp coat and pink and white checked bellbottom pants. But they have wrong boat (Doug and Cocoa switched to find one with a working shower) and in the subsequent shoot-out both henchmen are killed by Doug.
The Hessians won't know what hit them.
The Old Cop shows up now (and we saw this coming) and proves to be on the mobster's payroll. Held at gunpoint by Doug, the Old Cop admits he's a mole but points out with some accuracy that Doug can't prove anything. The local fuzz show up now (finally, a gunfight gets noticed!) and Doug realizes that he can make the Old Cop the hero by telling the police that he was the one who shot the bad guys and the mobster boyfriend will think the Old Cop double-crossed him and rub him out. Wow, what a convoluted plan, wouldn't it just have been easier to shoot him while you could (Cocoa was all for that option)?
Doug has quite a plan.
Anyway, it's over and the happy couple walk off together. "Freedom's just another name for love", she says, and I believe it.
Written in January 2010 by Nathan Decker and edited by Pam Burda.
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