Mr. T (Robert Hooks) is the kind of man you go to if you're in trouble, and if you're on the level and can meet his price, he will help you out to the best of his ability. And what ability - this is a man who doubles as a private eye and pool shark, so today he is over at Jimmy's pool hall meeting an expert player for a bet - not that his rival is better than Mr. T, as he soon finds out to his cost. As he plays, occasionally someone will come up to him and ask him for assistance: bail out a brother, persuade the council to repair tenements, and how about Chalky Price's proposition: beat some hoodlums for him?
If Trouble Man is recalled today it's for two reasons. One, as you may have gathered, Robert Hooks plays the original Mr. T in it, which must have everyone who watches this wondering whether the A-Team's Mr. T has ever seen it (surely the answer is yes). And two, the musical score was written and partly performed by Marvin Gaye, with the famous title track a prime example of the kind of craftmanship that sprung up for blaxploitaiton movies as far as their songs went. Other than that, the film suffered an unfair reputation over the years as something not worth your time.
Yet it's not all that bad, in fact with an actor who enjoys the presence of Hooks, it's rather good. Obviously patterned after Shaft with its cool private eye protagonist, it's at least as good as that influential but overrated cult favourite, and as you can imagine the tunes are just as good as well. There's only one thing wrong with it as far as the mystery goes and that is the matter of John D.F. Black's script allowing us to be one step ahead of Mr. T, which in effect weakens his position in the story. At first, we know as much as he does and Chalky's plan seems to be reasonable, but once T heads over to that night's crap game we see a different side to things.
This is because Chalky (Paul Winfield) and his business partner Pete Cockrell (Ralph Waite, the year that The Waltons made him a television star) are trying to frame T for murder, and the robbers who descend on the game are in their employ. One of the men of gang boss Big (Julius Harris) is set up as a thief, and Chalky shoots him in the back before he has time to protest his innocence, leaving T with a puzzle to solve and a murder charge over his head when Chalky makes sure the police are led to his door. Fortunately the hero is such a cool cat he can talk the cops out of locking him up and goes off on his own to work out what is going down.
Much of Trouble Man is in effect a detective story, only we can see the bigger picture when in the main the investigator cannot. He does cotton on by the end, of course, but it would have been nice for his standing in the film for him to solve the case and reveal to us who was behind it rather than have us waiting for him to catch up. There's a surprising lack of action here, not even a car chase to be seen, and although T is set up as some kind of stud, he gets one tiny love scene with the vaguely girlfriend-y Paula Kelly and the rest we have to take as read. So it's the plotting that takes centre stage, and it is absorbing enough to put the dynamic Hooks in a flattering light. It is refreshing to see a blaxploitation hero who uses his wits more than his fists, but the film relents eventually for an all-guns-blazing finale. Not bad, though, not bad at all.