Mean Johnny Barrows (1976)

Genres - Crime, Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Blaxploitation, Crime Drama  |   Run Time - 90 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - R
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Fred Williamson's self-directed cinematic vehicles tend to be cheap programmers but this early effort stands out from the pack because it has a more personal tone. The script for Mean Johnny Barrows is surprisingly drama-driven, focusing on the societal problems faced by its title character and mostly backgrounding its action elements until the third act. Williamson also distinguishes himself by abandoning his usual cocky persona to offer a more inward, less self-assured performance. The film's other casting choices tend to be odd - the distinctly non-Italian Stuart Whitman, Roddy McDowell and Mike Henry all play Italian mobsters here - but everyone takes their respective roles seriously and deliver committed, low-key performances that fit the film's moody style. Whitman in particular offers a nice, world-weary turn as a mob boss and there's also an amusing one-scene cameo by Elliott Gould as a loquacious street bum. Williamson's direction suffers from technical crudeness but he has a decent eye for framing and is capable of the occasional bit of directorial flair: a gangsters' meeting in a nocturnal graveyard is particularly effective. There's a certain amount of silliness here (the last-minute appearance of a certain character during the finale and the fight that follows is likely to prompt a chuckle) but Mean Johnny Barrows has got an odd, memorable vibe that makes it worthwhile viewing for blaxploitation enthusiasts.