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Hell Up In Harlem
The follow up to 1973's Black Caesar, Hell Up In Harlem (made the same year!), written and directed by Larry Cohen, once again catches up with gangster Tommy Gibbs (once again played with no small amount of awesomeness by Fred ‘The Hammer' Williamson). Never mind the fact that Gibbs died at the end of the first film, because when this sequel kicks in, we catch up with him as his father Papa Gibbs (Julius Harris) gets the gang back together to basically lay siege to the hospital where Tommy is recuperating. As the gangsters force the hospital workers to take care of Tommy a.s.a.p., Papa gets his hands on an ever important ledger that documents which high ranking city officials have been bribed… information that'll surely become important as the plot (which doesn't really always make sense) starts to develop.
As time passes, we learn that Tommy's main squeeze Helen Bradley (Gloria Hendry) now works as a prostitute since sneaking around behind her former beau's back and that former pimp Rufus (D'Urville Martin) now works as a man of the cloth. The more Papa Gibbs gets involved in Tommy's work, the more the older man develops a taste for his son's business. Before you know it he's working as a pimp himself and running things in Harlem while Tommy takes a flight to Los Angeles. When one of Tommy's soldiers, Zach (Tony King), kills Papa Gibbs in an attempted coup, Tommy returns to the East Coast hungry for vengeance, all while crooked district attorney DiAngelo (Gerald Gordon) tries to shake Tommy down as best he can.
"He may never get to heaven, but he's raisin' Hell up in Harlem!"
Cohen may toss logic aside in favor of some (admittedly awesome) exploitation set pieces but hot damn if Hell Up In Harlem isn't a whole lot of fun. This time around Williamson, who really does have the perfect type of screen presence to play a part like Tommy Gibbs to perfection, plays his character as more of an action hero than a traditional gangster. This is just one of a few ways that this second film breaks from its predecessor. But hey, it works. If you want to see The Hammer kicking ass and taking names, this is the movie for you. This time around Tommy Gibbs is almost unstoppable, taking out his foes with his fists or his guns, blasting down fools with a tommy gun and beating the snot out of people on luggage conveyor belts in the middle of an airport… whatever he needs to do to get the job done, he does it. Williamson does all of this with style and panache. He's the coolest of the cool and he knows it.
The supporting cast, many of whom are carryovers from the first picture as well, are also a lot of fun. Gloria Hendry is far more tragic this time around, but no less beautiful, while D'Urville Martin is just plain awesome as the former pimp turned reverend. Tony King makes for a really solid bad guy, tough enough that we believe, however briefly, that maybe he could give Tommy a run for his money, and it's fun to see Julius Harris reprise his role as Papa Gibbs. Throw in Gerald Gordon as the sleazy D.A. and it's clear that Cohen had a really strong cast to work with, something that the director does his best to make the most of.
There are continuity errors and clearly issues with how this second film connects to the first (though to be fair, in the home video version of Black Caesar Tommy Gibbs does survive, though how exactly theatergoers in 1973 were supposed to know that is anyone's guess!) but it doesn't matter. When you piece together enough bad ass set pieces, funky fashions, cool characters and a killer score (by Fonce Mizell and Freddie Perren) and place it all against some gritty location photography like Cohen does here, it all adds up to a good time at the movies.The Blu-ray:
Olive Films gives Hell Up In Harlem its Blu-ray debut in a nice AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 1.85.1 widescreen. Detail and texture are definitely advanced over previous presentations not only in close up shots where you'd no doubt expect it but in medium and long distance shots as well, where the grit of various locations comes into play visually speaking. Grain is present throughout but never overpowering or distracting while black levels look good. Skin tones seem accurate and colors are nicely reproduced. No noise reduction or edge enhancement is ever noticeable, nor are there any compression artifacts to complain about. This is a very solid picture.Sound:
The only audio option on the disc is an English language DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track and it sounds pretty solid. Clarity is good while hiss and distortion are non-issues throughout playback. The score and effects, gun shots in particular, have good presence. No problems to report here, this no frills mix gets the job done quite nicely.Extras:
The main extra on this disc is a newly recorded audio commentary featuring writer/director Larry Cohen moderated by Steve Mitchell, the director who made the King Cohen: The Wild World Of Filmmaker Larry Cohen documentary. Anyone who has listened to one of Cohen's commentary tracks in the past will attest to the fact that the guy is just a great storyteller with a really strong memory. Those traits come in handy once again as he and Mitchell basically walk us through the making of the film. There's talk here about following up Black Caesar, the location shooting used in the film, working with Fred Williamson and the other cast members, dealing with AIP and the very loose style of filmmaking that Cohen employed on this shoot. This is a seriously great track worth listening to!
Aside from that we get a theatrical trailer for the feature, menus and chapter selection.Final Thoughts:
Hell Up In Harlem doesn't always make sense but it does always entertain. This is fast paced, gritty, violent seventies exploitation at its coolest. Williamson is great in the lead and the rest of the cast are almost as good. Olive Film's Blu-ray release gives the film a nice high definition facelift and documents the picture's history in a really good commentary track. Recommended!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.