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Larry Cohen's 1996 return to blaxploitation "Original Gangstas" exists as a unique blending of the old-school and new-school. Cohen's own directing career kicked into high gear with a pair of genre classics, "Hell Up in Harlem" and "Black Caesar" both starring Fred Williamson in what are arguably his most well-known roles. Williamson himself is easily argued as a genre superstar and if one were crafting a Mount Rushmore of the great leading faces of the blaxploitation years, Williamson would easily deserve a spot alongside the likes of Richard Roundtree, Pam Grier and Jim Kelly. "Original Gangstas" assembles this quartet alongside the equally notable Ron O'Neal and Jim Brown for what should have been one final great hurrah for this group of talented individuals as well as a passing of the torch to the focus of the genre on inner city street gangs.
Filmed and set in the impoverished locale of Gary, Indiana, "Original Gangstas" opens in the vein of "Menace II Society" with instantly memorable antagonists in the form of the Rebels who terrorize their local community through shakedowns and drive-bys, one of which taking the life of Laurie Thompson's (Pam Grier) son and resulting in the near murder of a local store owner, (Oscar Brown Jr). This kickstarts the return of Bookman's son, John (Thompson), a renowned NFL star and former Rebel himself. Teaming up with former childhood friend Jake Trevor (Brown), the titular squad seeks to clean up the streets of their youth and send a message to the unpredictably violent gangs that now seek to rule it.
On the surface, "Original Gangstas" sounds like it should be a no-brainer crowd pleaser; in reality, it's a dour 100-minute waste of time, plain and simple. Cohen does his best to move the lifeless screenplay along, but at the end of the day, the film is a mess of genre cliches that are perpetually half-baked if not outright left unexamined. The film is awash in tedious planning from our characters that is never quite executed to any level of enjoyment for the viewer and often confounded by pointless double crosses that seem to do little more than pad the time 20-30 minutes beyond what the actual film should run.
The film's major problems often revolved around the character of Dink (Shyheim), a streetwise double-crosser whose real motivations are always in question and ultimately serves as little more than a plot device to inject additional stakes into Jake and John's plan. Shyheim and Dru Down's casting serve the film no favors apart from the surface level appeal to hip-hop fans who may have otherwise past the film by, but their prominence in the film ultimately is a huge detriment as their performances are stilted and cartoonish. The same could be said for the rest of the cast as a whole, with Williamson running out of energy before the halfway mark and Grier and Brown, looking like they regretted their decision to star in the mess from the moments cameras began to roll.
As "Original Gangstas" limps into its finale Roundtree and O'Neal show up for some gratuitous cameos that add absolutely nothing to the film but the question of, "why didn't someone get these genre greats together much earlier for something much more realised?" As both a throwback to the films that came before it and as a product of its time, "Original Gangstas" is an absolutely dreadful film that is a slog to finish. Sadly, it also marked the last time Larry Cohen would helm a big-screen adaptation, marking the end of a directorial career that turned out some truly wonderful and enjoyable films in the process.
The 1080p 1.85:1 widescreen transfer is a passable effort. While colors tend to look a little washed out and contrast levels are higher than expected, detail overall is above average and there's a healthy level of natural film grain. While colors are definitely not as vibrant as one would hope, the color levels are consistent from start to finish.
The English DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 track offers a little more than the transfer in terms of clarity; dialogue is crisp, effects are pronounced and the surrounds get a good workout especially when the score pops up to set the tone of a scene. English SDH subtitles are included.
Extras include a commentary with Cohen and the films original theatrical trailer
"Original Gangstas" is a wholly mediocre if not outright bad film; perhaps without the pedigree of its primary cast, it would have been a forgotten product of its time, but instead it just serves as a brutal reminder of "what if?" While the players here have for the most part gone on to have at least one or two additional memorable big screen appearances (Pam Grier faired best of all, delivering a career defining performance in "Jackie Brown" just a year removed from this film); one can't help but yearn for a much better vehicle for the combined group to take part in. A curiosity piece at best, "Original Gangstas" is best avoided. Skip It.