My weekly movie reviews. You can also read these on letterboxd.
This week I decided to focus on three films by director Larry Cohen, all starring Fred Williamson.
Black Caesar (1973)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
Larry Cohen’s style is unmistakable: the unhinged handheld camera, the chaotic editing, the frenetic action sequences. It all adds up to an iconic and under-appreciated vision. In his second film as director, Cohen feels assured as a filmmaker even if he’s still honing his craft. He excels in the violent scenes most, especially the incredible shooting in the street and chase that follows. The crowd’s reaction to the attempted assassination may be one of the best scenes about human nature and has Cohen’s other common trait, a biting sense of irony.
The movie’s slower moments seem to suffer and I can’t put my finger on exactly why that is. It might be the performances which don’t stand out other than the excellent Fred Williamson. It also might be the writing which just isn’t as sharp here as it often is in a Cohen picture. Still, this is a good gangster picture and must be one of the highlights of the Blaxploitation era.
Watched on Criterion Channel (it expires at the end of this month)
Hell Up in Harlem (1973)
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
This rushed sequel to Black Caesar features some improvements on the original but lacks as strong a narrative. The action is more fun, even if it gets a little gimmicky in the last third of the picture. Surprisingly the acting is also stronger overall, exemplified most by the character of Tommy’s father character. Individual scenes play really well but ultimately the movies just feels like new ideas cobbled together with ones rehashed from the original. It works at first but as the film goes on, it all gets a little tedious.
But it’s Larry Cohen and that means there’s still a lot here to love.
Watched on Tubi.
Original Gangstas (1996)
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
This might be my favorite of the loose trilogy of films Larry Cohen made with Fred Williamson. Closing out his collaboration with the star and following up on the Blaxploitation films they made decades before in a fresh way, Cohen handles this film with a more mature touch. His approach is more refined this time, something I appreciated even if it meant a loss of that chaotic Cohen style I love so much.
The performers come to the work with more maturity too, showing the weight of their experience. Honestly, I haven’t seen Jim Brown or Fred Williamson this good (except maybe in the recent VFW) and Pam Grier gives a performance that hints to the great work she’d do in Jackie Brown.
It’s one of the better 90s entries in the action genre and I think Cohen captures the sense of street gang violence just as well as any similar films of the era. It’s too bad it was his last major film. He will always be missed.
Watched on Criterion Channel (expiring at the end of this month)