Original Gangstas (1996)

Original Gangstas (1996)- * * *

Directed by: Larry Cohen

Starring: Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Richard Roundtree, Ron O'Neal, Oscar Brown Jr., Shyheim Franklin, Paul Winfield, Isabel Sanford, Charles Napier, Wings Hauser, and Robert Forster

The town of Gary, Indiana is in dire straits. The old mill shut down, businesses and industries left, the Jackson family vacated, and the good people that remain are under the thumb of the rampant crime that proliferated in the wake of the economy collapsing. And this isn't even a post-apocalyptic thriller. When local grocery store owner Marvin Bookman (Brown Jr.) is assaulted and shot by local punks, his son John (The Hammer), a former football player, flies in from L.A. to try and help. After seeing just how bad the situation has gotten in Gary, he reunites with his old friends Jake Trevor (Jim Brown), Laurie Thompson (Grier), Slick (Roundtree) and Bubba (O’Neal). The thing is, back in the old days they were in sort of a “mark 1” version of a gang, the Rebels. They would get involved in essentially harmless no-goodery. Now gang violence involves drive-by shootings and near-constant brutality. Hence, the ORIGINAL GANGSTAS re-form to save the day. What with the new Rebels, as well as rival gang the Diablos, causing mayhem all around, the OG’s certainly have their hands full…but will they triumph over the young punks? Find out today…

If we’re fans of any two things, it’s these two things: young punks getting their comeuppance from the older generation, and Fred Williamson. Regular readers of this site will note that both have been prevailing themes for us for years. To our delight, a movie finally came along that ties both of them together: Original Gangstas. Sure, it may have its flaws, but it also combines two other genre mainstays we all love and enjoy: the ‘cleaning up the town’ movie and the ‘assembling a team’ movie. Add to all that an outstanding B-movie cast, and you have an entertaining romp.

The cast truly is one of a kind, and the concept pre-dates The Expendables (2010) by a good 14 years. We didn’t even mention Isabel Sanford, Weezy herself, as Marvin Bookman’s wife, and she gives a spirited performance. Also on board is Paul Winfield as Reverend Dorsey, a man caught in all the crossfire. All of what’s going on around him might seem awfully familiar, as Winfield was in Gordon’s War (1973), as Gordon himself. Could this be where Gordon ended up? Fan favorites Charles Napier, Wings Hauser, and Robert Forster - enough to support their own movie right there - are also on board, but in glorified (or not so glorified) cameos.

All of these familiar names are appreciated, and add to the fun and the texture of the overall movie, but, as often happens, when there’s TOO many people, roles have to be necessarily small and characters get lost in the shuffle. Even the great Roundtree and O’Neal are essentially second fiddle. We noted the young Shyheim Franklin (credited as solely “Shyheim” in the opening credits, but with the full name for the end credits) as Dink. He stood out, of all people, amongst the pack.

There are a few things you can always count on with a Fred Williamson flick - his cool, his charisma, he’ll be chomping a cigar, and there will be a live performance in a club or bar. In this case, he got the Chi-Lites, which was a good get. Like a lot of other modern-day Freds like Down N’ Dirty and On The Edge when the older actors are on the screen, classic soul music plays. When the young punks are on (and they actually get called punks by their elders), rap plays. So, to counter the Chi-Lites, in a party scene we can see Bushwick Bill and Scarface, though they don’t perform. That symmetry could only come from the mind of the great director Larry Cohen. Even we don’t know if that last sentence was sarcastic or not, but Fred is credited as co-director of OG’s.

Other things we learned: Jim Brown looks badass in a British Knights jacket, there is an actual place called East Chicago, Indiana (where some of the movie was shot), and if you don’t like Fred Williamson, you probably have mental problems. While OG’s would never come near the movie theater today, it certainly did back then, which must have been nice for everyone involved. I (Brett) even remember seeing commercials for it on TV when I was 15 or 16. It could certainly be said that this movie set the stage for the DTV Freds that came in its wake, as stylistically it is very similar.

Though OG’s predates the show South Park (only by one year, however), there are dramatic and tear-filled readings of the line “they killed Kenny!” - other mentions of people killing Kenny are said throughout the film. We know it’s just a coincidence (or IS it?) but it did kind of help to keep the movie in the goofy zone. There are people out there that are disappointed that OG’s wasn’t some sort of serious treatise on the issue of gang violence. We think the filmmakers should have gone more in the other direction: how awesome would it have been to have seen Weezy mowing down gang members with a machine gun? Or even doing Martial Arts…dare we suggest we missed an opportunity to see Weezy-Fu? Well, we should be happy with what we have.

For true OLD school Blaxploitation - though all involved probably hate that term - in the mid-90’s, pretty much the only place to turn is Original Gangstas. It provides enough entertainment to sustain its running time (the cast alone could propel pretty much anything), and DTV/action die-hards should enjoy it, or at least appreciate it. 

Comeuppance Review by: Brett and Ty

Also check out a write-up from our buddy, Cool Target!


Pound Of Flesh (2015)

Pound Of Flesh (2015)- * *

Directed by: Ernie Barbarash

Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Aki Aleong, John Ralston, and Darren Shahlavi

Deacon Lyle (Van Damme) is just a guy out on the town in the Philippines, when he brings a nice lady home from a disco. When he wakes up in the morning, he is in a pool of his own blood and discovers someone has opened him up and stolen his kidney. Deacon then teams up with his religious brother George (Ralston), his old buddy Kung (Aleong), and the mysterious Ana (Peters), all in some sort of mission to get to the bottom of the kidney conspiracy. A baddie named Drake (Shahlavi) - a man more unpleasant than the music made by his namesake - may be behind this, or is there a conspiracy that goes...ALL THE WAY TO THE TOP? Further complicating things is the fact that Lyle’s niece is on the kidney transplant list. Will Deacon Lyle kidney-punch his way back to renal health? Just try to hold in your excitement...

They’ve Taken (2008) my kidney! is basically Van Damme’s battle cry in this somewhat puzzling new outing. Somehow a missing kidney isn’t as compelling a motive for revenge as a missing daughter...or are we missing something? He still has one left, as far as we know. Van Damme is good in the fight scenes, and he moves especially well for someone who has just had some unauthorized, highly-invasive surgery done on him. There’s even a novel excuse for him to do his famous split (yes, he’s still doing it, and proud of it, it seems) - but some not-so-novel excuses for rampant Van Damme nudity. We don’t need to see your whole body to know you’ve been kidneynapped.

But we give ol’ JCVD credit for trying. The opening alley fight is a standout, and the overall vibe of the movie is on the serious side, in keeping with most of the recent DTV JCVD output. Perhaps to maintain the “dark” vibe, to counterbalance the kidney-stealing plot, there are some religious themes that run throughout. This is mainly achieved by the brother character, the fact that Van Damme is named Deacon, and the fact that Deacon beats people up with a bible. Yes, as a society, we’ve reached a point where we’re subjected to Biblefighting. This might not be a good thing. 

But rather than concentrate on “dark” subject matter, director Barbarash - of fellow Van Damme vehicle Assassination Games (2011) and Michael Jai White vehicle Falcon Rising (2014) fame - REALLY should have “turned off the dark”, if we may paraphrase the title of that brilliant Broadway play. Why, oh, why do we always have to ask that filmmakers turn the lights on in their movies? Is that really so much to ask? And another no-no is here that is painfully obvious - green screen and CGI. Is it really so much better and easier to have chintzy-looking computer-graphic bullet hits on walls and gunsmoke? We’re really getting tired of what we call “Alt-E”, meaning some dork in an editing suite somewhere hitting “Alt-E” for “Explosion” instead of employing the technical mastery of pyrotechnics experts.  So, to recap, we have barfights, darkfights, and biblefights. (We didn’t mention the barfight before, but of course it’s there).

With the money they spent on CGI and green screen, they could have used on lighting. Priorities, people. There is some light Punchfighting, but it’s barely there and hard to see (like everything else). Van Damme’s buddy Kung - played by Aki Aleong of Gang Wars (1976), Out for Blood (1992) and Deadly Target (1994), among others - could have been played by Mako, if he hadn’t died in 2006. Actor Darren Shahlavi - so memorable as the baddie in Bloodmoon (1997) passed away in 2015 and the film is dedicated to him. With his passing, we’ve lost another actor/Martial Artist so integral to the fabric of the DTV action movies we’ve dedicated ourselves to celebrating. He will be missed.

On a lighter note, one of the highlights of the movie, appearing almost exactly an hour in, is when we see the actual kidney donor list. This might mark the first time we’ve seen an English-as-a-second-language attempt at a list of people’s names. We have Varko Bosilhoc, Consuela Pym, John Smythe II and even Simon Rants III. Will this be important to the plot? Just wait and find out. Also there was a Boris Sharlyakov, but it looked like it said Borts Sharlyakov. We wish it said Borts. We really do. There are other names on the list, but those were some highlights. Maybe it’s just us, but we found that funny.

Some elements of Pound of Flesh are worth your time, but what’s good about the movie is dampened by the inability to see anything, the insistent usage of green screen/CGI, and some pretty dumb dialogue. (Let’s just say Kung talking about how much he loves coffee isn’t likely to rival anything said by Portia from The Merchant of Venice anytime soon). It’s kind of a mixed bag for Van Damme. It doesn’t change his standing in our eyes or anything like that, but with some simple tweaks, it could have been significantly better. 

Comeuppance Review by: Brett and Ty