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With: Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Paul Winfield, Isabel Sanford, Oscar Brown Jr., Richard Roundtree, Ron O'Neal, Christopher B. Duncan, Eddie Bo Smith Jr., Dru Down, Shyheim Franklin, Robert Forster, Charles Napier, Wings Hauser, Frank Pesce, Godfrey C. Danchimah
Written by: Aubrey K. Rattan
Directed by: Larry Cohen
MPAA Rating: R for non-stop violence and pervasive strong language
Running Time: 99
Date: 05/10/1996

Original Gangstas (1996)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Make Me Wanna Holler

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Original Gangstas had a great idea, to bring back several icons from the so-called "blaxploitation" movies of the 1970s. Its director, Larry Cohen, and star Fred Williamson had made two of them, Black Caesar (1973) and its sequel, Hell Up in Harlem. Co-stars Jim Brown ("Slaughter"), Pam Grier ("Coffy" and "Foxy Brown"), Richard Roundtree ("Shaft"), and Ron O'Neal ("Superfly") are also icons of the era.

But, as scripted by Aubrey K. Rattan -- an odd choice, since Cohen is more often a screenwriter than he is a director -- Original Gangstas just goes sideways, missing out on every opportunity to be cool. It starts as a young basketball hopeful gets caught hustling in a game with some tough street thugs and gets killed. The old man (Oscar Brown Jr.) that runs the neighborhood store reports the killing to the police, and he, too, is targeted.

This brings the old man's son, football star John Bookman (Williamson), back into town to do something about all the gang violence. He is joined by his old pal Jake Trevor (Brown). The mother of the dead boy, Laurie Thompson (Grier), also pitches in.

It struck me odd that Bookman should be a football star, while the actual, real-life football star, Brown, plays an ex-boxer. But that's only small potatoes. The movie is also very preachy, spending great amounts of time talking about the collapse of the American infrastructure, about how "kids today" do such-and-such, and about the shame of gang culture. It's so serious that it forgets to have fun most of the time.

Then, I was irritated with how much of the story is devoted to younger, far less interesting characters, rather than the icons that, presumably, everyone paid to see. Finally, it drove me nuts how Grier is sidelined to make way for the two male stars, as if she were somehow weaker. (Grier fans know that she was and is a badass.) Moreover, Roundtree and O'Neal are barely in this at all. Then, the big shootout climax feels cheap and rushed.

It seems to me that there must have been a dozen ways to update an old blaxploitation movie, commenting upon the genre, perhaps discussing race in the U.S., and many other things, while still establishing interesting characters who have aged and who have learned a little bit since the 1970s. But it wastes all of these opportunities with its ill-balanced mix of poor action sequences, uninteresting young characters, and preachiness.

Weirdly, Robert Forster is pretty much non-existent in a small role as a white cop, and he shares no screen time with Grier, but only a year later they were both amazing in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, whose existence partially redeems this movie.

Kino Lorber released Original Gangstas on an average-looking Blu-ray in 2017. It includes a commentary track by Cohen, and a trailer.

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