Surviving an assassination attempt, “Black Caesar” Tommy Gibbs has found a ledger with the names of all corrupt politicians and policeman in New York City. Awaiting trial with his father, Gibbs uses the ledger to get acquitted through the help of dirty District Attorney DiAngelo. As much as DiAngelo is not thrilled with his dirty work being found out, he has no other choice. Meanwhile, Tommy’s personal life goes bad when he leaves longtime love Helen and forces her to give him their two children.
He finds love again with Sister Jennifer, who is in the church with Gibbs’ former friend turned priest Reverend Rufus. Deciding to go straight once and for all, Tommy leaves the “business” to his father. However, when Gibbs enforcer Zach betrays the family for DiAngelo, Tommy finds there is no other way out of the gangster lifestyle but to fight back hard.
With the success of the theatrical release of Black Caesar in early 1973, Larry Cohen was pressured to make a direct sequel and it seems rushed at times. There is good reason why the film may have that rushed feel to the film. The film was only shot on weekends because both Cohen and lead actor Fred Williamson were working on other films during the week. However, despite the flaw of the rush, this is still a pretty fun sequel.
The film depicts Tommy still as the big man in Harlem but now he has become the ultimate target as he has possession of a ledger with all the dirty cops and government officials working for the Mob. Throughout the course of the film, Tommy goes from being his usual “Black Caesar” mob type to eventual softie to a more avenging angel of sorts. While it may seem quite odd that this would occur, Williamson makes the best of what he had to work within a short amount of time.
The supporting cast goes through some changes themselves. Originally a supporting cast member in the original, the late Julius Harris plays a major role as the heir apparent to his son’s organization. Interestingly enough, it surely reverses the traditional “father to son” approach of gangsters of the film and rather becomes “son to father”.
Meanwhile, Gloria Hendry goes from main love interest in the original to a more extended cameo as a woman whose heart is truly broken and despite their love being broken, Tommy sees Hendry’s Helen as someone he cares about deep down and tries to protect her. Eventually, Tommy finds love in aspiring nun Sister Jennifer, played by Margaret Avery. His love for her prompts him to do the right thing for once and perhaps make a major change in his life.
However, with all gangsters, once you are in the organization, it is not easy to just get out. This bodes for Tommy as well as he may have the brains of the operation but the firepower is a different story. What may be of interest here is that while there is a lot of firepower, there is actually a scene where Williamson gets to do martial arts. During the first half of the film, he crashes a mob party in Florida and fights a woman in a bikini who is a martial artist. Williamson actually throws a nice jumping roundhouse kick in the film.
Despite the rushed feel, Hell Up in Harlem is quite a fun sequel to Black Caesar. While one will always wonder what if there was more time to do the film, for what it was, it has its bad moments. However, overall, who wouldn’t want to see Fred Williamson return as Tommy Gibbs?
WFG RATING: B
An American International Pictures production. Director: Larry Cohen. Producer: Larry Cohen. Writer: Larry Cohen. Cinematography: Fenton Hamilton. Editing: Franco Guerri and Peter Honess.
Cast: Fred Williamson, Julius Harris, Gloria Hendry, Margaret Avery, D’Urville Martin, Tony King, Gerald Gordon, Bobby Ramsen, James Dixon.