Color, 1996, 99 mins. 10 secs.
Directed by Larry Cohen
Starring Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Paul Winfield, Isabel Sanford, Oscar Brown Jr., Richard Roundtree, Ron O'Neal, Christopher B. Duncan, Robert Forster, Charles Napier, Wings Hauser
Kino Lorber (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

It's Original Gangstaseasy to see how Original GangstasOriginal Gangstas come into existence in the mid-1990s. The huge surge in popularity for black-targeted action films from the '70s had been growing steadily since Orion Pictures started issuing them on VHS in the latter part of the '80s, even spawning the 1988 spoof I'm Gonna Git You Sucka. Both New Jack City and Boyz n the Hood had been huge hits in 1991 with a host of subsequent tough, gritty dramas following in their wake. Both 'em together, and here you have an all-star crime film that brings together some of the biggest blaxploitation stars around for a story dreamed up by Fred Williamson. In fact, it was Williamson who brought aboard the film's director, Larry Cohen, who had helmed Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem; this would turn out to be his last directorial feature to date, capping off an incredible career in action, horror, and suspense films.

And just look at that cast! In addition to real-life buddies Williamson and Jim Brown (reunited again after Take a Hard Ride, Three the Hard Way, and that "Roller Disco" episode of CHiPs), you get a great role for Pam Grier (in which she's so good she convinced Quentin Tarantino to cast her in Jackie Brown) and supporting roles for an avalanche of '70s character actors ranging from Wings Hauser and Charles Napier to The Jeffersons' Isabel Sanford and blaxploitation legends Richard Roundtree Original Gangstas(Shaft) and Ron O'Neal (Superfly) in glorified cameos. The action centers around the growing gang violence in Gary, Indiana (shot in location where Williamson's mother Original Gangstasstill lived at the time), a town where a dead steel industry has left a skyrocketing murder rate and a frightened populace. When his elderly grocery store owner dad gets nearly beaten to death after witnessing a drive-by shooting, pro footballer John Bookman (Williamson) comes back home and puts out a public cry for a crackdown on all the street violence. The authorities don't seem interesting in complying, however, and after an afternoon altercation at the store involving John teaming up with the shooting victim's father, Jake (Brown), against two young punks, it becomes clear this will have to be a neighborhood project. Soon Laurie (Grier), mother of the deceased, joins in and provides crash course lessons in self-defense and disarming a criminal, which leads to more old buddies coming together to take back the city.

Original Gangstas doesn't even try to do anything revolutionary with its citizens fighting back plotline, and it hardly matters when you have this roster of talent in fine form. The production actually wound up using Original Gangstasmany real-life gang members for the shoot, some in major roles, which ended up temporarily reducing the city's real-life crime rate substantially during shooting. Original GangstasThere's definitely a feeling of authenticity to the gang scenes, complete with '90s hip-hop music all over the soundtrack, which makes for an effective contrast against the older generation's message about showing respect.

Regularly available on home video from VHS to DVD, Original Gangstas comes to Blu-ray from Kino Lorber looking quite strong and healthy, certainly much better than the DVD editions (the first a standalone with letterboxed and open matte full frame options, followed by a double feature with Williamson's Soda Cracker). The look here is definitely '90s film stock all the way without a ton of visual style, though the most blaxploitation-y scene in a bar really pops with vivid colors and detail. Audio options include the theatrical 2.0 stereo mix or a more spacious but slightly tinnier 5.1 mix, both DTS-HD MA. The big new extra here is a Larry Cohen audio commentary moderated by Elijah Drenner, which touches on the challenges of filming in Gary, the very nice gang members they employed, the AIP backgrounds of the many actors (surprisingly, this was his only film with Grier), and the hands-on role of Williamson as producer including control of the budget. The theatrical trailer is also included, plus bonus trailers for Trouble Man, Truck Turner, Steele Justice, Avenging Force, and Hero and the Terror.

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Reviewed on October 13, 2017