Original Gangstas Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998


You don't wanna be like your old man, startin' somethin' you can't handle.
That ain't never been my style, bro-ther.

Times are tough in Gary, Indiana. With the steel mill gone and many jobs with it, this town has become a virtual prison to the law-abiding residents that are helpless prey to the lawless gangs running wild in the streets. The reckless bloodshed claiming the city's youth has made Gary the Murder Capital of America, supplanting the former holder of the title, Detroit. Kenny (Timothy Lewis) is a good, but cocky kid, who makes the mistake of playing b-ball with the Rebels, an amoral group of misfits. Just a few short hours later, he is dead, the victim of a daylight drive-by shooting. However, John Brookman Sr. (Oscar Brown Jr.), a local grocer, finger the Rebels for the murder of Kenny, against the protestations of his wife Gracie (Isabel 'Ouisie!' Sanford of "The Jeffersons"), and soon he finds himself in the hospital after a botched execution.

This event brings together three of the founding members of The Rebels. Former NFL star John Brookman Jr. (Seventies blaxploitation actor Fred Williamson, featured in "Black Caesar" and "Bucktown") hurries home to investigate the attack on his father. Laurie Thompson ("Foxy Brown" Pam Grier), the mother of Kenny, wants to exact revenge on the Rebels for what was done to her son. And former boxer Trevor (yet another blaxploitation actor Jim Brown, who co-starred with Grier in "Mars Attacks!"), Kenny's long-absent father, is also back in town to right some wrongs against the son he never knew.

I want you to go and check out the Brookman store. If the old man says he didn't rat us out, you let him alone. If he owns up to that shit, you take his ass out... I believe in the honor system.

The police, led by Detective Slatten (Robert Forster who appears with Grier in Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown"), are powerless against the gangs. The mayor (Charles Napier) thinks the problem will go away if ignored long enough. Reverend Dorsey (veteran character actor Paul Winfield) believes in appeasement of the gang leaders to maintain the peace. Meanwhile, the gangs don't like being diss'ed by John Brookman Jr., and take their frustration out on his neighbors. Sounds like it's time for some bad-ass vigilante justice, Seventies style!

They don't cry... they don't mourn... they just kill each other.

1996's "Original Gangstas" was a Blaxploitation revival pic helmed by veteran director Larry Cohen, who directed Williamson in "Black Caesar" and its sequel "Hell Up in Harlem". This tale of violent and unsympathetic vengeance, where the honor-bound rumblers of yesteryear mix it up with the younger riffraff , has all the hallmarks of classic Blaxploitation. In these low-budget productions that were slapped together during the Seventies, the black underdog hero typically had a close family member die at the hands of a powerful nemesis that was above the law, whether it be a tough street gang, the neighborhood branch of organized crime, or the local police force. In a plot so paper-thin that you could almost see through it, the underdog hero would take the law into their own hands, dispensing their violent retribution in the search for justice, regardless of the cost. Many classic Blaxploitation flicks echoed these sentiments: "Foxy Brown" had Grier infiltrating a brothel to get revenge for her dead boyfriend, "Coffy" (starring Grier again) had a shotgun-toting nurse blowing away drug dealers after her sister becomes a dope fiend, and "Superfly" had Ron O'Neal (who has a supporting role in OG) as a coke dealer who turns the tables on corrupt police and politicians.

They got the power and the money and the streets.

Part of the popularity of the Blaxploitation film came from the empowered African-American role models found in these films. Prior to the rise of Blaxploitation, very few popular movies had Blacks as protagonists with a sense of self-determination. Even in the films where the lead characters were less-than-savory, such as pimps ("The Mack"), it was the protagonist's power over his own destiny and that of others, even if for less than honorable purposes, that served as a representation of self-assertion in a less-than-hospitable world. These films launched the careers of many Black actors, such as Richard Pryor and of course, Pam Grier. Though the genre virtually disappeared before the end of the Seventies, it evolved into a stream of higher-production-value films embodying many of the same themes, such as the 'crusader against the criminals' movie ("New Jack City", the "Beverly Hills Cop" franchise), the 'social justice through crime' movie ("Set It Off", "Pulp Fiction", "Dead Presidents"), and even the fatalistic 'in the hood' movie ("Boyz 'n the Hood", "Menace to Society", "Fresh"). Blaxploitation influences have also made inroads into the hip hop and rap music scene, where artists (such as Snoop Doggy Dogg) have sampled dialogue from Blaxploitation pics or have been inspired by the outrageous production design for their music videos.

"Original Gangstas" takes the conventions of Blaxploitation and contemporizes them into a rousing actioner with well-choreographed martial arts action (without the cheesy 'wacca-wacca' guitar strumming of the old flicks) and exciting gunplay. Though the performances leave a little to be desired (Fred Williamson looks like he's a graduate of the Steven Seagal three-facial-expressions-school-of-thespian-arts, and even Pam Grier, who showed off her brilliant acting chops in "Jackie Brown", seems a little stilted in a number of scenes), and the 'might is right' morality becomes a little over-bearing at times (there aren't too many action films where you see a protagonist vindictively shoot an unarmed adversary), this tale of underdog justice is a surprisingly impressive piece of work that manages to capture the look and feel of a long-lost cinematic era.

Images courtesy of MGM Pictures. All rights reserved.


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