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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Penitentiary III’ Unrepentantly Earthy

Times Staff Writer

Within the first few minutes of the raw and dynamic “Penitentiary III” (citywide), writer-director Jamaa Fanaka deftly maneuvers boxer Too Sweet Gordone (Leon Isaac Kennedy) back into prison. Having been slipped a mind-bending strength-enhancing drug during a match, Too Sweet gets three years for manslaughter after having slugged his opponent to death.

It seems that the epicene villain Serenghetti (Anthony Geary) wants Too Sweet back in the slammer so he can become part of his stable of boxers. Serenghetti lives like royalty in his lavishly appointed cell, attended by the elaborately gowned drag queen Cleopatra (amusingly played by female illusionist Jim Bailey), because he’s learned how to exploit the warden’s (Ric Mancini) weakness for gambling.

For the record:

12:00 AM, May. 14, 1988 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 14, 1988 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 7 Column 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
The release date for “Penitentiary III,” reviewed in Friday’s Calendar, has been changed and no new date has been set yet, according to Cannon Films.

“Penitentiary III” (MPAA-rated R for violence) is pure action fantasy, but Fanaka pushes its possibilities to the limit. Too Sweet, so well played by the wiry and talented Kennedy, is a mythical figure, the wronged, oppressed black man who overcomes injustice not merely by his fists but by strength of character, spirit and discipline. Indeed, Fanaka is a film maker of such abundant passion and control that his film seems all but sculpted, resulting in an exploitation picture at its most stylized. “Penitentiary III” is fast, raunchy, angry, earthy, funny. It’s just plain dynamite, yet also works very effectively as an allegory.

In Fanaka’s skilled hands the cast manages to bring a realistic dimension to the fantasy figures they play, while Geary, who’s developed into a nervy, risk-taking character actor-comedian in the years since he left “General Hospital,” provides much of the comic relief. Steve Antin is Too Sweet’s likable, ill-fated pal, and Marie Burrell Fanaka is a boxer from the women’s prison who wins Too Sweet as her very personal trophy. Mancini does a yeoman job of making plausible the comic-book character that is the warden. Wrestlers Rick Zumwalt, Magic Schwarz and the initially very scary Haiti Kid have key roles.

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By now the “Penitentiary” movies are as much about their maker as their hero. Jamaa Fanaka, a 1979 UCLA graduate in film, is clearly as eager to break out of the prison genre formula he has mastered so well as Too Sweet is to win his freedom. Like Too Sweet, Fanaka has paid his dues--and then some.


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