Original Gangstas opens with shots of the deserted streets and burned-out store fronts of Gary, Indiana and narration telling us how a once great American city came to be in such disrepair. The steel plant closed and put much of the city out of work. While the politicians and the police looked the other way, violent street gangs rose up and took over entire neighborhoods. Now, Gary is a shell of its former self. Even the local movie theater has closed down. The narrators tells us that the last movie to play at the theater was Star Wars.
Led by Spyro (Christoper B. Duncan) and Damien (Eddie Bo Smith, Jr.), the Rebels are the most feared and powerful gang in Gary. They rule through violence and intimidation. Talk to the police and your business is liable to get torched and you’re likely to get shot. However, Spyro and Damien have finally gone too far and now, two men who previously escaped from Gary are returning to town to dish out some justice.
John Bookman (Fred Williamson) is a former football player who wants to avenge the shooting of his father. Jake Trevor (Jim Brown) is a boxer who once killed a man in the ring and who wants revenge for the death of his son. When they were young men, John and Jake were the original Rebels and now they’re getting the old gang back together again. With the help of Laurie (Pam Grier), Rev. Dorsey (Paul Winfield), Bubba (Ron O’Neal), and Slick (Richard Roundtree), the original gangstas are going to take back the streets of Gary.
Original Gangstas was released at a time when, largely thanks to the influence of Quentin Tarantino, people were just starting to feel nostalgic for the old blaxploitation movies. The main appeal of the film, not surprisingly, is that it brings together so many of the great blaxploitation stars and sets them loose in what was then the modern era. (Jim Kelly is missed.) When John and Jake talk about how they’re responsible for the Rebels, they could just as easily be talking about how they’re responsible for both all of the independent crime films that came out in the wake of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.
Original Gangstas is a tribute to both the Blaxploitation genre and the oversized personalities that made that era so memorable. Neither Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, nor Richard Roundtree were particularly good actors but they all had so much screen presence and such an innate sense of cool that it didn’t matter whether they could convincingly show emotion or not. (Original Gangstas gives all of the big dramatic scenes to Pam Grier, who was not only naturally cool but a damn good actress to boot.) The minute Fred Williamson lights his cigar, he control the entire movie. He and Jim Brown make a good team and Original Gangstas is an entertaining and violent trip down memory lane.