Too Busy Looking Good: A Memory of Kentucky Action Star, Jim Kelly

By Josh Shepherd

One of my most vivid memories was a Saturday afternoon in the late 1970s when I was a little over 10-years-old. I was watching a movie on Channel 19 called “Three the Hard Way.” I’d never heard of it before and I’d come into it long after the opening credits. But that didn’t matter to me.

I was watching a scene in which corrupt urban cops – a staple villain of 1970s movies – were caught trying to plant drugs on a very tall, very stylishly dressed black man. Knowing what the cops were trying to do, the black man suddenly assumed a martial arts stance and proceeded to kick the ever-loving hell out of every bad guy on the street! The camera caught the best moves in slow motion so I would not miss a detail of our hero’s exceptional fighting skills.

Bad guys came from nowhere and appeared from everywhere. They just popped into existence on the street for the sole purpose of a taking  slow-motion standing side-kicks to the face and my 12-year-old self sat open-mouthed in front of my television watching nothing less than the greatest movie of all time.

My mother called my name twice before I snapped back to reality.

“Aren’t you dressed yet? We’re going to be late to the restaurant if you don’t hurry up.”

My heart sank as I realized I was going to miss the rest of the movie. If I had known it would be almost 30 years before I’d get a chance to see this movie again, I’d have chained myself to my bedroom door.

But that was my introduction to legendary Karate champion, action movie star, and Bourbon County native Jim Kelly.

Almost 40 years afterward, I still recall that scene with great clarity. It would be years later before I would finally see Kelly in in his famous supporting role alongside Bruce Lee in “Enter the Dragon.” In my opinion, Jim Kelly stole that movie. There is no argument that he got the best lines.

HAN (The Villain): … It is defeat that you must learn to prepare for.

WILLIAMS (Jim Kelly): I don’t waste my time with it. When it comes, I won’t even notice. I’ll be too busy looking goood.

Upon hearing that line, how could a 12-year-old boy not canonize Kelly among the patron saints of Cool?  He said his lines with such confidence and swagger that he instantly became one of my personal heroes. The grace of his fighting style and the sense of humor he brought to his few major film roles made my adolescent eyes pop out my head.

There are some who still refer to this brief and shining period in genre movie history as “Blaxploitation.” Fortunately, in the past two decades especially, people have come to reconsider that term and realize how important and influential Black Action movies of the early 70s have been. They are a direct influence on contemporary big budget blockbusters. In “Three the Hard Way”, Kelly and former pro-football stars Fred Williamson and Jim Brown are nothing less than superheroes facing down a horrible, evil threat. They emerge untouched against a barrage of machine gunfire, dispatching bad guys with increasingly large guns and violent, fiery explosions.

Even more than laying the foundation for such action stars as Jamie Foxx, Will Smith, or Denzel Washington, Black action stars have been equally as influential on Channing Tatum, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Bruce Willis or Jet Li. Before Willis ever said “Yippie Ki Yay,” to vaguely European terrorists, Jim Kelly was too busy looking good to be impressed by the evil “Mr. Han, Man.”

It is unfortunate that Kelly’s career as a leading action star came to such an abrupt halt. By 1975, Black Action Movies, and by extension the careers of its leading stars, came to a sudden and unjustified end.

Nearly 40 years after my first encounter with Jim Kelly, my admiration for his work, however brief, has never dimmed. Though a career in popular culture is frequently short-lived, I am certain he deserved a longer time in the spotlight than he was given.

The news of his untimely death I did not take well. Jim Kelly lost his extended battle with cancer over two weeks ago. Had the disease been an enemy he could physically kick, Cancer would never have stood a chance.

I am, however, grateful for the handful of movies in which he played a leading role or offered support. And though it was all fiction, all his movies a result of scripted words and careful fight choreography, I still cannot shake the feeling that the world is a little less safe without Jim Kelly in it.