Original Gangstas (1996)
Gary, Indiana. It was a steel town, and it still is. United Steel still has their factory there, although it, like the city, is a ghost of its former self. My grandfather lived and worked there as one of the many Europeans that settled down to work in the steel industry. My mother and her brothers were born there.
This was the 1930s and 1940s. Like many cities that depended on a major industry for their life blood, once the world began to change the town did as well. Gary fell into ruin and decay as most of the population left. It increasingly became a symbol of blight and crime in the United States. Former NFL player and famous blaxploitation actor Fred Williamson is one of the many celebrities (the entire Jackson musical clan, for instance) that came from Gary. It's no surprise that when he got the chance he decided to make a tribute to the movies that made him famous he also decided to feature his home city and return to Larry Cohen, who directed him in such '70s films as Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem.
Williamson plays John Bookman, a former NFL player who now coaches a team in Los Angeles. He returns to Gary after his father, a local store owner named Marvin (Oscar Brown Jr) is shot by a member of the Rebels for informing on them to the police. A young up-and-coming basketball player named Kenny (Timothy Lewis) is gunned down outside of Bookman's store after hustling the Rebels in a basketball game, and Marvin, despite his wife Gracie's (Isabel Sanford) warnings, gives the police the information as a favor to Kenny's mom Laurie (Pam Grier), who owns a shop down the way.
John is not greeted with open arms on his return. He and his friends were founding members of the Rebels, which were run as a protection gang, while the new version promotes the drug trade while keeping uneasy truces with the Diablos and the Rangers, the other two major gangs in the city. While John left, other former friends stayed. Bubba (Ron O'Neal) thinks that John is just going to stir up trouble, while Slick (Richard Roundtree) is happy to help as long as he is left out of it.
Another friend also returns: boxer Jake Trevor (Jim Brown), Kenny's biological father, who is aching for revenge and is willing to start a one-man war against Damien (Eddie Bo Smith Jr.) and Spyro (Christopher B. Duncan), the current leaders of the Rebels. John is largely prepared to do anything himself, but is encouraged by the mayor (Charles Napier) to negotiate with the rebels through Reverend Dorsey (Paul Winfield), who has managed to work in the past as a mediator with the gangs. Negotiations fail, leading Laurie, John and Jake to make their own plans. While Laurie helps organize the community and teach them how to fight, the men work out a scheme to break the truce between the Rebels and the Diablos and start a gang war, thus letting both sides wipe themselves out.
With the director and the cast this should have been much better than it is. Larry Cohen often uses location shooting, and he does so again here, filming largely in and around Gary. However, where in the past he often had an almost guerilla film-making method, his direction this time around is largely flat. There are a couple of major action sequences, but other than a scene where people are burned out their houses there isn't much impact. The movie often has the feel of a direct-to-video production.
And this is a case where I do have to lay much of the fault at the director, as the cast is all-in for this. Pam Grier was achieving a career revival at this time thanks to Quentin Tarantino, and the older blaxploitation films like Shaft and Superfly were getting a well-needed second look. Jim Brown himself also had a major role in Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! from the same year. Fred Williamson hadn't been in any major films for a long time, but he still exudes toughness and cool here like he always has. Too bad Richard Roundtree and Ron O'Neal barely get what amounts to cameos.
Of the newer actors, both Eddie Bo Smith Jr. and Christopher B. Duncan are sufficiently menacing as the leaders of the Rebels, but are often overshadowed by the over-the-top antics of Dru Down as Kayo. Despite very little time on screen, Tim Rhoze also exudes a sense of presence as Blood, the leader of the Diablos.
Despite all the performances being well-done to competent, it is the combination of outrageousness and style that is sorely missed. Instead of feeling like a tribute to the movies of the '70s, it feels like a barely competent ripoff of the more popular '90s hood films. The genre still should have had some life in it, and the cast definitely do. Too bad the director no longer did.
Original Gangstas (1996)
Time: 99 minutes
Starring: Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Eddie Bo Smith Jr., Christopher B. Duncan
Director: Larry Cohen