This post is part of Cinema Styles' week long The Spirit of Ed Wood Blog-A-Thon.
Because Cohen's non-horror fare generally comes with a one-to-grow-on social message dressed-up in a clunk-ily acted, shot, and produced package, these "serious-minded" movies of his often feel like After School Special episodes for adults. Yet it's amazing how light-hearted a director's heavy-handed approach can become when you realize that one of his actors is wearing a really awful wig. All-in-all, though, none of that can discount Larry Cohen's earnestness. Many will laugh at the set-ups and line readings in Original Gangtas, but there's no denying the genuine concern he expresses for those inner city blues.
Original Gangstas missed out on the early nineties box office success of inner city hood films (no matter, it went to straight-to-video anyways), but its premise isn't too far removed from the well-known BoyzJuiceMenaceNewJack story lines. Kenny is a talented high-school basketball prospect on the verge of breaking free from the ghetto, but after he hustles some hoods in a one-on-one game (where the rim looks like it's only eight feet high), he goes down in a drive-by denouement. When an old shopkeeper snitches on the culprits, he goes down too... but not completely. He lives. And his son is Fred Williamson. And Fred Williamson's friend is Jim Brown. And Jim Brown used to be married to Pam Grier. And now they're all back in Gary, Indiana ready to kick-ass and clean-up the streets.
With a budget of just under five million, I'm guessing that half of that bank went to the movie's "big names" and the rest went to a dramatic fire sequence (pictured above). Because of that, there is a guerrilla-style feel to the makeshift sets and costumes look of Original Gangstas. Punches don't land anywhere near the face, scream match-up with lips worse that The Wilhelm Scream, and bullets don't leave holes around pools of strange-looking blood.
Cohen's ultimate message here is not unlike when our parents used to lecture us "more respectful days". Williamson and Brown's characters used to gang bang too, but at least they didn't kill people! In Original Gangstas' most unintentionally funny moment, the young gang leader looks up at Brown with an end-of-life clarity and waxes philosophical about how it is Brown and Williamson (the old-school that laid the path for the new-school) who have blood on their hands and who are partially responsible for Gary, Indiana's tough times by abandoning it. Without a beat, or even quick cut to Brown's face to show pause or contrition, Brown knifes the dude and he and Williamson walk off into the smoggy sunset.
This isn't calculated cynicism on Cohen's part, just the product of a four day shoot with actors and crew who don't improvise that well. It may be bad, but it's honest, and because of that it retains the spirit of movie-love until the very end of the end credits.