John Bookman (Fred Williamson) has had to return to his old hometown of Gary, Indiana but not for any good reasons, it's because the city has been living up to its reputation as the murder capital of America. What has happened was that one promising basketball player who had a scholarship to university made the mistake of scamming some gang members out of money; not much money, but enough to get him killed in a drive by shooting. Then the gang thought Bookman's elderly father (Oscar Brown Jr) had snitched on them, so they shot him too - John's not having that.
Seventies nostalgia truly came into its own in the nineteen-nineties, with the music, movies and general pop culture being obsessed over by those who recalled that era with fondness, but oddly not too many films bringing back those stars for harking back to their heyday were made. Original Gangstas was one which did precisely that, offering a bunch of old blaxploitation actors the chance to grab the limelight back once again in the age where African American cinema had undergone a renaissance thanks to black filmmakers deciding they could make their own movies as well as anyone else. However, it was actually Larry Cohen, helmer of many an urban seventies thriller, who was behind the camera.
This turned out to be Cohen's final film in that capacity after many years of singular dedication to his craft, although he did continue to write prolifically, and it would be nice to say he went out on a high, but the truth was that while this began strongly enough, the novelty waned dramatically when you twigged that the action was mostly going to be confined to the last half hour, which meant the rest leading up to that was a lot of soul searching among the ageing lead characters as they tried to work out how things got to be so bad, if they were responsible, and if so what they could do about it. If you saw that cast list and were rubbing your hands together with anticipation at seeing them breaking heads and whatnot, then there was a lesson they wanted to teach you first.
A lesson about community, and how the older generation had allowed the deprived areas - Gary, as with many other First World towns and cities, was seeing its industry vanishing leaving poverty in its wake - to sink into a morass of violence, drug abuse and intimidation. It was all very well having a thriller with a social conscience, but these aspects were related with some dull conversations which while heartfelt, did drag the film down into a morose series of the cast portraying how sorry for themselves their generation were feeling. The solution to this was apparently not a selection of community programmes or fresh ways of bringing money and education to the inner cities, but something rather more drastic: see those gang members? Why not try killing them?
To be fair, those gang members were doing their level best to kill off the innocent citizens themselves, so you could see why a taste of their own medicine might give them pause for thought, though in effect it just makes them more violent, so much for that idea. Better to gloss over the failings of the message, and simply enjoy seeing some valued performers interact: here was Jim Brown having a heart to heart with Pam Grier, or Fred Williamson shooting the breeze with Ron O'Neal and Richard Roundtree. There were also appearances by Charles Napier, Wings Hauser and Robert Forster (the year before he and Grier starred in Jackie Brown) as ineffectual cops, though the young cast playing the bad guys notably did not achieve the high profile their colleagues had back when they were big stars. If anything, this was less reminiscent of those Charles Bronson Cannon action flicks and more an achingly sincere black version of Tough Guys, which was not so impressive. Music by Vladimir Horunzhy.
Talented American writer/director who often combines exploitation subject matter with philosophical/social concepts. Began working in TV in the 1960s, where he created popular sci-fi series The Invaders, before directing his first film, Bone (aka Dial Rat), in 1972. A pair of blaxploitation thrillers - Black Caesar and Hell Up In Harlem - followed, while 1974's horror favourite It's Alive! was a commercial hit that led to two sequels.