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Original Gangstas

Rated R, 99 min. Directed by Larry Cohen. Starring Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Paul Winfield, Isabel Sanford, Ron O'Neal, Richard Roundtree, Dru Down, Shyheim, Luniz, Charles Napier, Wings Hauser, Scarface, Bushwick Bill.

REVIEWED By Joey O'Bryan, Fri., Aug. 23, 1996

Where the hell is Rudy Ray Moore? We've got Black Caesar, Slaughter, Foxy Brown, Superfly, and Shaft, but no Dolemite? Oh well, they're probably saving him for the sequel. As for the original Original Gangstas, those longtime fans hoping for a non-stop smorgasbord of head-busting excitement and outrageous plotting a là Gordon Parks, Jr.'s seminal Three the Hard Way will perhaps be a little disappointed by this new film's attempt to bring their action icons, superstars of the 1970s' so-called “blaxploitation” genre, into the grim reality of the 1990s. Times have indeed changed (“It's been a long time since we've owned the streets,” Pam Grier says mournfully at one point). Alligator shirts have replaced the more flamboyant fashions of old, and now these O.G.s actually want to try to solve their problems with talk, even if the bad guys ultimately, thankfully, give them no choice but to pull out the heavy artillery and start shooting everything in sight. If the sluggish second act comes as something of a letdown following the swell, briskly paced mayhem of the first 30 minutes, be patient and stick with it. The finale sees whole neighborhoods go up in flames as our heroes, backed up by a handful of baseball-bat-wielding housewives, take to the crime-ridden streets of Gary, Indiana to do battle with the gangs they helped to create. Aubrey Rattan's so-so screenplay may have its fair share of structural problems and goofy dialogue (Isabella Sanford's fire-and-brimstone tirade in a church is a highlight), but it also manages to chronicle Gary's urban decay with uncommon detail, in addition to creating a wholly believable community of distinctive characters to populate the violence-plagued city. Although the script tips its hat to social realism, director Larry Cohen -- long one of our wittiest exploitation directors, responsible for such classics as God Told Me To, Q: The Winged Serpent, and the aforementioned Black Caesar - mostly chooses (probably for the best) to beef up the more comic book-ish aspects of the film, while at the same time fully exploiting the natural charisma of his dynamite cast -- who, by the way, look like they're having a grand time. Their enthusiasm is infectious and Original Gangstas, despite its many faults, is diverting fun, and maybe even a little (gasp) resonant. And, by the way, I ain't lyin'.
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