The Cohen Case Files: Original Gangstas (1996)

Directed by Larry Cohen

Some ideas are better in the abstract than in actual execution. The Expendables films, for example, sound like they should be cheesy fun, but filtered through the egos of roughly a dozen aging—outright elderly, in some cases—action stars, the idea goes from fun to boring faster than Jet Li’s exit from the second film (yes, I watched them both). Jumping on the idea of cashing in on the nostalgia for a group of aging genre stars a good fifteen years before Sylvester Stallone did, the Fred Williamson-starring Original Gangstas wrings a little more juice out of its hook, but the finished film winds up a confused, preachy mess.

John Bookman (Williamson) is a retired NFL star who returns to his hometown of Gary, Indiana when his father is shot for reporting the license plate number of a car used in a drive-by shooting. Angry at the jaded police investigators (Robert Forster, Frank Pesce) who don’t seem that interested in solving the case, and frustrated by the inaction of the Mayor (Charles Napier) to stem the tide of violence that has left the city a decaying shell of its former self, John slowly takes up the cause of meting out street justice alongside some old friends.

These old friends include: Laurie (Pam Grier), a local hairdresser whose son was killed in the drive-by shooting; Jake (Jim Brown), a former boxer who has returned home for the funeral of the son he had with Laurie; Slick (Richard Roundtree), a local businessman who used to run a protection gang with John and Jake when they were young; and Bubba (Ron O’Neal), an ill-defined local who happens to pop up at opportune times with a shotgun when needed.

There is a definite nostalgic kick to the scenes of these Blaxploitation icons brought together. It helps that Grier, Brown, Roundtree, and O’Neal, in addition to being credible action stars, are also very good actors, giving their regretful characters a sense of actual melancholy and sadness. There is a surprising amount of tenderness to Brown’s performance as he seeks to mourn the death of a son he never knew and reconnect with Laurie. With the rest of the cast doing the heavy lifting of fleshing out their characters and moving the story forward, Williamson—who peaked as an actor in Cohen’s Black Caesar—is allowed to mostly kick ass and growl angry speeches about justice and taking back the streets.

But the largely good work put in by the stars of the film is undone by an uninspired script from Aubrey Rattan and Cohen’s workmanlike direction.

There are several interesting ideas bubbling beneath the surface of the film. The local residents are hesitant to rally behind John, viewing his violent attempts to clean up the streets with understandable ambivalence. John and Jake confront guilt over the fact that they became successful and never returned to their hometown as it descended into something resembling a warzone. The Reverend (Paul Winfield) of the local Baptist church wrestles with his conscience, weighing the benefits of trying to broker peace between the residents and the local gangs versus the damage done by allowing the gangs to continue to operate.

But every time the film threatens to explore one of these more interesting avenues, everything comes to a screeching halt with a scene involving Spyro (Christopher B. Duncan), Damian (Eddie Bo Smith Jr.), and Kayo (Dru Down), the cartoonish villains.

The violence perpetrated by the gangs is played for maximum brutality, but the actual gang members are portrayed as a bizarre combination of traditional movie thugs and extras from The Warriors and West Side Story. The disconnect between the over-the-top caricatures and the realistic damage they inflict wrecks the tone of the film.

While the goofy portrayal of the gangs falls squarely on Cohen’s shoulders, Rattan does the film no favors through increasingly silly plotting and truly bad dialogue as the film flies off the rails late in the second act.

While the film is grounded in actual grief and regret for the first half of its running time, it loses its punch as characters who have tried to do the right thing resort to brutal violence and unchecked aggression in the name of justice. And while it’s obvious from the start of the film that it will end with a battle royale between our heroes and the gangs, it’s hard to ignore the sour taste the resulting violence leaves in the mouth of the viewer. This is where the uneven tone of the film becomes impossible to ignore.

The action-packed third act should be fun and exciting—especially when Cohen provides the shot everyone wants to see: Williamson, Grier, Brown, Roundtree, and O’Neal, side by side, guns blazing. Instead, there is an ugly edge to the idea of upstanding citizens turning into vigilantes as a means to solve their problems.

There even seems to be the hint that Cohen and Rattan want the audience to question if they should be enjoying the action. Laurie has a throwaway line about how the punishment she’s inflicting doesn’t make her feel any better since most of the gang members are kids the same age as her murdered son. But instead of following up on this bit of moral ambiguity, her character then guns down an unarmed gang member before delivering a cheesy one-liner.

Original Gangstas feels like two different movies forced to uncomfortably coexist. The first movie is a vigilante action film and the second is an angry indictment of poverty and the crime it breeds. The tug of war between wanting to provide the action the fans want and delivering a lesson about the effects of poverty and crime in predominantly African-American neighborhoods eventually becomes more than the film can handle. Given the ham-fisted speechifying that is forced on the characters as they explain the socioeconomic issues affecting their city, the film probably would have been better off as a straight-forward actioner.

More than the confused tone, the blunt manner with which the script attempts to give the film a social conscience is disappointing—especially coming from a Cohen-directed film. I’m not saying that films like Bone, Black Caesar, or The Stuff were subtle in the way they pointed out racism, injustice, and corporate greed, but at least they were playful. Cohen tucked his anger at the hypocrisy and unethical behavior of his targets into satires and genre films that worked as popcorn entertainment first, social commentaries second.

To date, Original Gangstas is the last feature film Cohen directed. As a potential swan song, it’s not an embarrassment, but it falls very short of the mark aimed for by Cohen and his cast. The social consciousness of the film is admirable, but clumsily incorporated. While it is sometimes fun to see the cast playing off each other, ultimately, that’s not enough to sustain the film over its far too numerous rough patches.

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