Posts Tagged ‘fred williamson’

Let’s get one thing straight about writer-director Larry Cohen(who we always seem to come back to every few months around here)’s 1973 mini-opus Black Caesar : this is most assuredly not a blaxploitation film in any traditional sense.

Oh, sure, it was marketed to the African American audience. And yes, a formerly-trod-upon black guy getting his revenge on “The Man” is a central theme here. And yeah, it’s got a kick-ass soul music soundtrack (in this case supplied by the one and only James Brown himself). And okay, it stars none other than Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, and features D’Urville Martin in a supporting role as a crooked preacher.

So fair enough, it’s got all the trappings of your classic blaxploitation flick. But right there, bubbling away just underneath the surface, hiding in plain sight, there’s an unstoppable rhythm that grinds away more ferociously than the vocal stylings of the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. An undeniable trajectory that guides the plot along like a force of nature. We know it’ll all end either in tears or in a bittersweet “victory” that stings more than it soars, yet we can’t turn away despite the fact that the fate of the film’s central protagonist, one Tommy Gibbs (Williamson, in the role that made him a household name), is written in the stars. Yes, friends, this is classic Shakespearean tragedy as its finest — albeit in truncated form and set in Harlem.

When we join the story, our guy Tommy is a hard-working shoeshine kid in the 1950s who helps out the local hoods by setting a guy up to get whacked and running a payoff over to a local crooked cop. When the payoff envelope he delivers turns up a little light, the aforementioned morally compromised police officer, one Captain McKinney (the great Art Lund) takes it out on Tommy and busts his leg with his nightstick. And that right there is his biggest mistake, because Tommy Gibbs never forgets, and he never lets a grudge go.

As he lays in bed with leg in a cast, he begins to hatch his master plan, his rise to the top — he learned all he needed to know about the world when McKinney’s billy club whacked him, and he knows without a doubt that the name of the game is power. First he’s gonna get McKinney and every other white asshole just like him to bow down before him, and then he’s gonna bring ’em all down at the precise moment he’s got them eating out of his hand.

Next thing we know it’s 20 years later and Tommy’s making his mark as a hit man for the mob who’ll take on the jobs nobody else wants. the Italian “family” bosses don’t trust him, of course, but when he’s given a block of his own in Harlem that none of them want, he makes it work, and soon he’s expanding his territory — and taking over theirs. Tommy Gibbs soon becomes known as the “Black Godfather,” and as his influence grows, the same guys who first gave him a chance begin to view him as a threat. It’s only a matter of time before Tommy gets too big for his britches and is brought down hard.

Along the way, though, he becomes the undisputed heavyweight champion of the Harlem crime world — but not without paying a price. Oh, sure, he gets McKinney, and every other bent lawman and politician, right where he wants them, and soon the guys who used to give him his marching orders are all taking the same from him. But the first person to see Tommy for the monster he’s become is none other than his own mother. When Tommy offers her everything she ever wanted and then some, she turns him down flat. When his estranged father re-enters the picture later, the results are no different. And his single-minded determination to “make it” manages to alienate his wife (there’s a particularly gritty scene that marks one of the few times I’ve actually seen a film portray spousal rape  as the horrendous violation ) and drive her into the waiting arms of his best friend.

Needless to say, by the time our Mr. Gibbs finally has everything he wants — or more precisely everything he thought he wanted — he’s alone and finds he’s really got nothing. There’s been one thing driving him on all these years, though, one thing that he can still take care of before the curtain drops on his classically-structured tragedy — he can finally get even with McKinney, personally. Tommy’s a very sharp guy and senses that he’s on the way out, but before he goes, he’s going to take the symbol of all his former oppression and victimization down with him, goddamnit!

Okay, so this isn’t a particularly original set-up in and of itself (“be careful what you wish for, you just might get it” and all that) — but the the oldest stories are still the best. As I stated at the outset, Black Caesar is genuinely Shakespearean in its structure (and Shakespeare got it from the Greeks — remember Oedipus, the very first tragedy?), but Cohen does a terrific job of serving us up a story we’ve seen a thousand times before in a way that’s fresh, exciting, and for its time, frankly even a little bit revolutionary. the characters here, even down to the smallest supporting parts, are interesting and involving, even if they’re only there to serve as convenient plot devices. The dialogue is uniformly smart and realistic throughout, the actual Harlem filming locations are well-portrayed, Williamson is flat-out superb in the title role (equal parts compelling, repulsive, sympathetic, and alienating — we can always relate to his portrayal of Tommy even when we can no longer condone any of his actions), and at no point do you feel like there’s no way this could happen. This is a thinking person’s exploitation flick, and folks with a background in classical literature are going to feel more intrigued than insulted or pandered to by it. There’s nothing wrong with telling the same old story very well, after all, and that’s exactly what Black Caesar does. Sure, at the end of the day you could make the argument that it’s essentially a Cliff’s Notes version (right about 90 minutes) of The Bard transposed into an urban ghetto environment, but that’s actually a pretty cool thing, especially when done with  professionalism and passion — both of which are on display here in ample quantities throughout. Frankly, while Larry Cohen can usually be counted on to crank out a competent piece of work, this is as close as I’ve ever seen him come to genuinely inspired moviemaking.

Black Caesar is available on DVD from MGM as part of its Soul Cinema line (of course). It’s (again, of course) essentially a bare-bones release that offers nothing by way of extras apart from the original theatrical trailer, but the anamorphic widescreen transfer looks great, especially considering its age, and the 2.0 stereo sound does the admittedly killer soundtrack pretty solid justice. It’s also playing for free all month on Impact Action On Demand on most cable and satellite systems.  So do yourself a favor and check it out — I’ve got a feeling that no less an authority than William Shakespeare himself would be more flattered than insulted by it.

"Original Gangstas" Movie Poster

Hey, what the hell, you know?

In the late 90s and around the turn of the millennium, blaxploitation cinema started to earn a long-overdue critical reappraisal, due in large part to the success of films like Jackie Brown and the “updated” (and lame) Shaft — suddenly the opinion-dictators out there, who had written off the entire genre as racist, contemptible crap realized a lot of those old flicks were pretty damn good. And after being wrong for about twenty years, said self-appointed trendsetters were finally right about this terrific, much-maligned genre. And since a lot of the folks who starred in those great old 70s action yarns were looking for work, it was only a matter of time, I suppose, before a “greatest hits” reunion came to pass.

Enter director Larry Cohen, the ultimate B-movie survivor (he helmed blaxploitationers like Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem in addition to tons of awesome B-grade horrors), who in the year 1996  reassembled all the blaxploitation heavy hitters (well, okay, almost all), sprinkled in a few more awesome cult stars, got ahold of a semi-decent script that gave ’em all something to do, and the result its Original Gangstas.

Okay, he might be like 60, but I still wouldn't fuck with Fred Williamson

Just look at this cast, people — Fred Williamson. Pam Grier. Jim Brown. Ron O’Neal. Richard Roundtree. Paul Winfield. Isabel Sanford. Robert Forster. Wings Hauser. Charles Napier. Paul Winfield. There’s just no way any flick with that cast, and Cohen behind the camera, is going to suck too badly.

Is Original Gangstas predictable? Dear God yes. Fred “The Hammer” plays an ex-football player who comes home to Gary, Indiana when his father is brutally attacked in the shop he owns by members of a street gang known as The Rebels, and from the minute his private plane (probably rented for all of ten minutes by the production crew) touches down, you know everything’s gonna work out okay. Any supposed “twists and turns” the plot takes along the way cam be seen from a mile off — at least.

But so what? You’re not in this for anything new. You’re here for the comforts of the familiar, to see the old pros show the young punks how it’s done.

For the most part, the fight scenes are well-enough staged, and you believe the likes of Williamson, Brown, Grier, and Roundtree can still kick a little ass — and that they’ll feel it in the morning. The aura of invincibility around all of them has been brought down a couple notches, and they’re portrayed not as super-heroes, but as people who can hold their own in a fight despite their advanced years. Yeah, it might be a totally unrealistic premise, but at least it’s presented —- uhhhhmmm — semi-realistically.

"Eat lead, muthafuckas!!!!!!!!!!"

It’s essentially the soul music generation vs. the hip-hop generation here, and there’s never any doubt about who’s gonna come out on top in the end. Contemporary elements like drive-by shootings, automatic weapons, ultraviolent gangbangers, and a “gangsta rap” soundtrack all combine to produce an atmosphere where it’s pretty clear the old-timers are, sure, a little out of their element, but they work hard and know how to adjust on the fly. They’re survivors, after all, and they’ll make it out of this scrape okay.

Sure, it gets a little preachy in spots — what’s happening to our neighborhoods?, what’s happening to our youth?, why are the cops so incompetent?, what’s happened to economic opportunities in the black community?, yadda yadda yadda etc. etc. etc.

So what? There was an element of preachiness in all the 70s blaxploitation flicks, usually about these exact same subjects. Give Original Gangstas a break — it’s pretty clear from the outset that the only “original” thing in the movie is the first word in the title.

Real love never dies, baby

It’s all here — the gangland slaying of their son rekindles an old romance between Brown and Grier, hard-working flatfoot detective Forster tries but can’t get anywhere, Napier as the Mayor and Hauser as his assistant don’t actually give a shit, Williamson’s gotta get the old gang back together (he and Brown and Roundtree and O’Neal actually founded The Rebels), and the little kid who everybody loves gets killed. Again, don’t expect anything new under the soggy Gary skies here, just enjoy the ride.

And if you can do that, then goddamnit, Original Gangstas is a  lot of fun. Way more than any flick with a geriatric cast going after one last crack at glory should be. Cohen moves things along at a steady little pace and with consummate professionalism, and not one of the stars seems to be mailing it in, even though all of them could. I won’t recommend it without reservation, but if you know exactly what you’re getting into here — and it’s never any secret — then there’s no reason you can’t just kick back and dig it for what it is — one last shot at the big-time for a bunch of actors who certainly deserve it.

"Original Gangstas" DVD from MGM

Original Gangstas is available as a bare-bones DVD release from MGM, and it’s also playing all month on Impact Action-on-Demand, in HD, on most major cable systems. It’s well worth a look, and even if one viewing will probably do it for you, it’ll be one enjoyable viewing.

The advertising tagline for Original Gangstas is “It’s Time for Some Respect.” The film itself earns just that.

Rareflix Vol. 4, Featuring "Boogie Vision, "Transformed" and "Lightning Bolt"

Rareflix Vol. 4, Featuring "Boogie Vision, "Transformed" and "Lightning Bolt"

—transformed into Christian action heroes, that is! Yes, folks, blaxploitation veteran Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and second-tier martial arts star Leo Fong staged a comeback in 2005, but you probably missed it if you weren’t looking too closely. Williamson, star of classics like “Bucktown,” and Fong, star of less-than-classics like “Revenge Of The Bushido Blade” got themselves some old-time religion and re-emerged in the 2005 Jesus-vs.-the-drug-lords modern cinematic parable “Transformed.”

The mean streets of Westgate (which look to be Los Angeles suburbs) are the setting for this tale of—ahem!—intrigue , corruption and redemption, the debut (and to date only, as near as I can tell) directorial effort of Efren C. Pinon, who, if he plays his cards right (if his religion allows him to play cards at all, that is) could very well become the Ron Ormond of the 21st century—and who wouldn’t aspire to that lofty goal?

Westgate is a city besieged by the scourge of illegal narcotics, and while exactly which drugs are tearing the community apart isn’t spelled out (in a Christian flick apparently just saying the word “drugs” will do), the goal of the evil dope-pushing syndicate is apparently to get every kid in town hooked on their product (again, whatever that nameless product may be).

Enter Pastor Debra (Shirlee Knudson), a plucky young lady of the cloth who’s determined to win back her church’s neighborhood, and then the city, from the pushers, lead by the ruthless Cholo (Ken Moreno), a guy who’s apparently dealing drugs to provide a better life for his young son—by getting all the boy’s friends hooked. That little dichotomy doesn’t seem to bother Cholo much, though, and why should it? He’s got friends in high places, including none other than the mayor himself, who are all in for a piece of Cholo’s action and look the other way while he turns the children of the city into hopeless dope fiends.

Pastor Debra is no pushover, however—she’s evidently one of those hip, modern preachers who isn’t above engaging in some hardboiled martial arts action if that’s what it takes to keep the kids in her community safe. Watching her and her friends beat up the pushers in a local bar and then high-fiving each other and saying “praise Jesus!” really is a sight to behold, and I’d venture to guess you won’t find anything like it in any other movie ever made—which probably isn’t such a bad thing, in and of itself, but you have to give Pinon and the other folks behind “Transformed” some credit for not being afraid to be unintentionally absurd.

Our tough-as-nails pastor has some friends in high places, too—the mysterious aged ninja-type known only as The Fist (Fong), who always seems to show up when trouble is at hand, and the equally-aged-but-no-less tough mercenary warrior known as The Hammer (Williamson), a top-dollar freelance operative brought in by a secret unnamed group of good guys to provide help in Westgate’s hour of need.

It won’t be an easy fight—the whole city power structure is lined up against our good pastor, the local DEA office is on the take, and secret computer files reveal that the drug network reaches all the way to the top, with President George W. Rush (yes, really) and Vice President Dick Chaney (yes, really again) named among the nefarious network’s head honchos.

The hand of God has a way of intervening in these things, though (apparently often through tragedy), and when Cholo’s son O.D.’s on product supplied to the school kids by old man’s network, he lets Jesus into his heart while he prays by his comatose kid’s hospital bed (hence the “Transformed” title) and now Pastor Debra and her mystery men have a powerful ally on the inside and are ready to take down the dealers and their ninja army (well, okay, it’s just a few ninjas, and they look pretty old and slow themselves, but it’s the thought that counts).

I don’t know how else to say it, folks, “Transformed” is one of those things you’ve just got to see to believe. Scripture-quoting badass preacher lady and her arthritic protectors taking on a drug network that reaches all the way to the White House yet is apparently inept enough to be brought down by essentially a handful of concerned neighbors, albeit concerned neighbors who know how to fight. The seasoned action exploitation fan will find a lot to like here, people who  like just plain  weird movies will find a more-than-generous amount of  jaw-dropping moments, and everyone else will wonder, probably quite rightly I might add, just how this thing got made, and more importantly — why?

“Transformed” never got a theatrical release and I couldn’t even find any movie poster or stills for the thing to include in this review. It is, however, available on DVD, as you can tell from the photo at the top of this post, as part of the “Rareflix Volume 4” box set from Media Blasters. For those who haven’t been picking them up, I have to say that the Rareflix sets are not only a bargain, they’re also a blast. Volume 4 features James Bryan’s “Groove Tube”/”Kentucky Fried Movie”-style comedy “Boogie Vision” and Antonio Margheriti’s spaghetti Bond rip-off “Lightning Bolt” in addition to “Transformed.” The extras on the set are pretty light (the hysterical commentaries featuring various semi-inebriated Media Blasters behind-the-scenes personnel that featured on the first two volumes are sadly missing), but “Transformed” does include a commentary from Leo Fong and each disc is packed with previews for other cool Media Blasters titles, so it’s still a damn solid value for your entertainment dollar.