[box cover]

A Piece of the Action

The third and final entry in the series of Sidney Poitier-directed films featuring himself and funnyman Bill Cosby as con artists, A Piece of the Action (1977) is a relentlessly leaden and didactic affair that forgets it's supposed to be a comedy. Though their previous two collaborations, Uptown Saturday Night (1974) and Let's Do It Again (1975) are far from classic, they were at least lighter on the moralizing and, most importantly, shorter. At an unforgivable 137 minutes, this is a poorly plotted, self-important finger-wag of a motion picture. Chief among the film's flaws is that the story's hook — that these criminals are blackmailed by a recently retired detective (James Earl Jones) into performing community service at a center for troubled youths — doesn't arrive until a half-hour in. Up until then, it's just a meandering knock-off of The Sting in search of a reason for existing. That's not to suggest things improve once the story does get moving; rather than wring laughs out of the con artists' unlikely situation, the film becomes a preachy tract on personal responsibility. One of Poitier's biggest mistakes is throwing himself to the jackals that are the directionless, authority-averse kids, while confining Cosby to a tepid romance with the director of the community center. Poitier's scared-straight method of bullying the kids into self-improvement is largely mirthless, and it only gets heavier when one of the students confronts the class's other well-meaning teacher (Hope Clarke) over what she perceives as the woman's high-handed, middle-class African-American attitude. Though well played by the many talented performers on hand, these scenes cry out for the Cosby's improvisatory genius; instead, it's Poitier working a typically stern variation on Glenn Ford's tough-guy teacher role in the film that made Poitier a star, The Blackboard Jungle (1955). There's not much action either, outside of a woefully obvious stunt-double fight that finds Cosby's character evading thugs by flipping off a wall in the best James Tiberius Kirk tradition. It's admirable that Poitier and Cosby would want to offer an alternative to the violent, getting-over mentality of the day's blaxploitation epics with a gentler, more positive depiction of urban uplift, but they sacrifice entertainment value for an avalanche of good intentions. As a result, being a good, conscientious citizen ends up looking squarer than ever, and that's even with an irresistibly funky score from the late, great Curtis Mayfield. Warner presents A Piece of the Action in a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with so-so Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. Extras include a brief featurette, "Dynamite Duo: A Retrospective," that rightfully praises the teaming of Poitier and Cosby for its cultural significance, while going a bit to far in lauding the quality of the actual films. Also on board are theatrical trailers for all three films in the "trilogy." Snap-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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