"Original Gangstas" rounds up the stars of those "blaxploitation" pictures of the early '70s--Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Richard Roundtree and Ron O'Neal--and drops them down in the derelict steel-mill town of Gary, Ind., the actual hometown of Williamson, also the film's producer.
The result is as elementary as the original movies were, but along with the obligatory hard action there's some social commentary. The men are thicker in the waist but not to be messed with; Grier, although cast in an unglamorous part, looks as spectacular as ever.
As anyone who has ever happened upon downtown Gary in the last 15 years or so can tell you, this once-handsome, now-boarded-up and burned-down small city in the heart of the Rust Belt attests to the fragility of the American dream. Cinematographer Carlos Rodriguez captures the ruined grandeur of many Beaux Arts structures, the ravaged train station in particular.
Aubrey Rattan's script focuses on a grocer, Marvin Bookman (Oscar Brown Jr.), who figures he's luckier than former steel-mill co-workers, some now reduced to living in cardboard boxes in store doorways. Some time after World War II he left the mills to open his neighborhood market with his wife, Gracie (Isabel Sanford), and he's still in business.
There's a catch, however. He must keep his mouth shut in regard to the activities of the Rebels, a gang to which his own son belonged in its tamer days but which in this profoundly economically depressed area has become remorselessly vicious and dangerous.
But when a young man (Timothy Lewis), headed for UCLA on a basketball scholarship, is gunned down in a drive-by because he was foolish enough to hustle the Rebels over a bet, Bookman can no longer look the other way and gives a police detective (Robert Forster) the license number of the drive-by vehicle. Only the ineptness of Bookman's novice would-be executioner spares his life.
The shooting of Bookman brings home his son John (Williamson) after a 15-year absence during which he became a football star and then a coach, and also Jake Trevor (Brown), a champion boxer turned promoter. Also once a Rebel, he is the father of the murdered youth, whom he never knew, thanks to the boy's proud and fiercely independent mother (Grier)--this long estrangement could have used some more development.
You know right off that of course the "Original Gangstas," who include Roundtree and O'Neal, who never left town, are going to take the law into their own vengeful hands, since the local cops seem overwhelmed, probably even outnumbered, by the gangs.
As in many of the pictures in the '70s "blaxploitation cycle," there is some social consciousness here but, as in the past, the rough stuff, backed here by a hard-driving rap score, is the main attraction.
Still, there is a genuine sadness that inevitably permeates the picture, due to its setting in Gary and a quality of reflectiveness in the writing and the playing of the film's middle-aged stars under the efficient direction of Larry Cohen, the indie veteran who directed Williamson in "Black Caesar" and "Hell Up in Harlem" in 1973.
The film's other familiar faces are Paul Winfield as a smarmy minister who tries to act as a mediator with the gangs, Charles Napier as Gary's hard-pressed mayor and Wings Hauser as his assistant. Christopher B. Duncan and Eddie Bo Smith Jr. are properly cynical and ruthless as the current Rebel leaders.
"Original Gangstas" leaves you feeling that more could have been made of this "blaxploitation" reunion, but it's not bad--and no more and no less substantial than the films of the original cycle.
* MPAA rating: R, for nonstop violence and pervasive strong language. Times guidelines: The film does have much brutal action and crude speech and is unsuitable for children.
Fred Williamson: John Bookman
Jim Brown: Jake Trevor
Pam Grier: Laurie Thompson
Paul Winfield: Reverend Dorsey
An Orion Pictures presentation of a Po'Boy production. Director Larry Cohen. Producer Fred Williamson. Screenplay by Aubrey Rattan. Cinematographer Carlos Gonzalez. Editors David Kern, Peter B. Ellis. Costumes Lisa Moffie. Music Vladimir Horunzhy. Executive music producers David Chackler, Eric Brooks. Production designer Elayne Barbara Ceder. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.