At a time when the `blaxploitation' genre was prevalent in the cinema, a handful of individuals tried to provide an intelligent, positive alternative, one being Academy Award winner Sidney Poitier (Lilies of the Field, To Sir, with Love, In the Heat of the Night), with a trio of films he not only directed, but also co-starred in with Bill Cosby, including Uptown Saturday Night (1974), Let's Do It Again (1975), and this feature, titled A Piece of the Action (1977), which would mark Poitier's last role in front of the camera for just over ten years, as he focused his efforts towards directing. Also appearing is James Earl Jones (Field of Dreams, The Hunt for Red October), Denise Nicholas (Blacula, Let's Do It Again), Hope Clarke (Basquiat), Tracy Reed (Car Wash, Running Scared), and Titos Vandis (The Exorcist, Oh, God!), along with Ja'net DuBois ("Good Times", I'm Gonna Git You Sucka), Frances Foster (Crooklyn), Eric Laneuville (A Force of One), Ernest `Rog' Thomas ("What's Happening!!"), and Sheryl Lee Ralph (The Mighty Quinn, Skin Deep), in her first film role.
As the film begins we meet two men, Dave Anderson (Cosby), a burglar who specializes in safecracking, and Manny Durrell (Poitier), a conman who's just fleeced a local criminal boss, Mr. Bruno (Vandis) out of a whole lot of dough. The activities of both men draw the attention of the police, including that of soon to be retired detective Joshua Burke (Jones), but neither man is fingered for their respective crimes...that is until Burke blackmails David and Manny into working for a local community improvement center. The two men, not knowing their blackmailer, or each other, for that matter, become reluctant philanthropists, stuck having to train and find jobs for 30 inner city juvenile delinquents who seemingly have little desire or motivation to make their lives better, and are only participating in the program because of a court order (one thing they do have a lot of is attitude). As the men begin their `penance' work, they also try to figure out who is behind their predicament, as if they can discern the identity of their `benefactor', they may also find a way out, but matters become difficult as Dave sort of falls for the woman who heads the community center, Ms. Lila French (Nicholas), while Mr. Bruno and his associates learn the identity of the person responsible for conning them i.e. Manny (it's not so much about the money, but an issue of disrespect). Interestingly enough, David and Manny's work with the troubled youths begins to show positive results, but they may not be around long enough to enjoy the successes as the mobsters seek their revenge.
While this isn't my favorite Poitier/Cosby pairing, it's still a really well done movie, and definitely worth checking out. Actually, I believe all three films The Cos and Poitier did were originally intended more for African American audiences, to show they didn't have to settle for the stereotypical black caricatures streaming out of Hollywood at the time, but the movies had such appeal that most all audiences appreciated them, and, subsequently, they did very well. The main difference here compared to their two, previous outings is this one has less humor and slapsticky comedy. It's almost like there's two movies here, one dealing with Poitier and Cosby's character trying to get out of their predicament, and then a second featuring Poitier sort of reprising his role from his 1967 film To Sir, with Love, which featured him as a teacher trying to infuse a sense of self worth into a bunch of snotty English students (there are a number of touching, borderline sappy sequences, as the kids come to terms with their reality, and realize they have to make their own opportunities). Each plot is given equal time, finally converging into one story, resulting in a running time of just over two hours. Another big difference is here Poitier and Cosby start out as criminals, eventually seeing the error of their ways, while in the previous films their characters were more along the lines of working class fellows who get humorously tangled up with criminal elements. The chemistry between Poitier and Cosby is most definitely present as it was in the previous films, with Poitier as sort of the straight man to Cosby's comical character, and a lot of credit goes to a strong, professional supporting cast headed by James Earl Jones, as the no nonsense retired detective using the men to help those less fortunate for his own reasons. It did seem a little odd how quickly the kids caught on and turned things around for themselves, but then Poitier's character did employ some unique techniques. Another aspect that helped a lot was the inclusion of a number of fine looking women, including Denise Nicholas, Tracy Reed, and Hope Clarke, who are all excellent performers that held their own well against Cosby, Poitier, and Jones. There was sort of an odd subplot featuring Manny, his girlfriend Nikki, played by Reed (the two were living together), and an unexpected visit from her disapproving parents (and an alcoholic aunt played by DuBois), I wasn't sure where this aspect was going, but I think it was mainly meant to show Manny's affections for Nikki, as later she's kidnapped by the goons, and used as leverage against Poitier's character. The story moves along well, but given all that's going on in the film, some might get a little lost if they're not paying attention. Some aspects of the story could have been simplified, or even removed, but given the movie was an all around good time, I didn't mind it running longer than it needed too...I think my favorites scenes involved Bill Cosby's character dancing, once in a disco, and again at the very end during the credits. I have to say, some of those moves, which I don't think I've ever seen another human being perform, were outta sight. Oh, before I forget, the movie also features an excellent, original musical score by the legendary rhythm and blues artist Curtis Mayfield.
The picture on this DVD, presented in widescreen (1.85:1) anamorphic, looks very good, and the Dolby Digital mono audio comes through cleanly. There are some extras included, the main one being a featurette titled Dynamite Duo: A Retrospective (7:30), which includes interviews with actors James Earl Jones, Denise Nicholas, Jimmie Walker, John Amos, Julius Harris, screenwriter Richard Wesley, New York Press critic Armond White, and USC professor and author Todd Boyd. Also included is a trailer for this film, along with ones for the films Uptown Saturday Night (1974) and Let's Do It Again (1975).
By the way, horror film fans might be interested to know Angus Scrimm, the Tall Man from the Phantasm movies, makes an appearance in the latter half of this film, as a monk, of all things.