This incredible film was (mis)sold as a blaxploitation piece when it was released and, unfortunately, the label has stuck. (The US DVD is part of a black collection called "Soul Cinema").
Personally, I love blaxploitation movies for their brazen, unsubtle approach and mostly poor production values, but I can also understand why they do not interest a lot of people. Therein lies the tragedy of this great movie, as it bears very little resemblance to blaxploitation other than the fact that it has black people in it. It's pretty low budget, but it's a far cry from the clumsy and mindless tones of Bucktown, the gratuitous titillation of Coffy or the pounding social vengeance of Black Caesar. Even the better received titles like Shaft are unfair comparisons to this. This is no cheap thrill, this is very finely crafted and brilliantly acted piece of cinema.
Across 110th Street is really one third cop character piece, one third Mafia crime/revenge thriller, and one third (black) social drama. This could've been a very clumsy affair but is pulled off extraordinarily well by virtue of having a fantastic script, restrained, dispassionate, almost detached direction (by a man whose most notable prior achievement was a rather dull episode of Hawaii Five-0) and brilliant performances by a perfectly cast group of actors. Aside from a defining performance by Yaphet Kotto, I won't single them out, I will simply say that this film boasts one of the best ensemble casts I have ever seen.
Not wanting to give too much away, the story involves three men from Harlem who steal $300,000 from the mob and spend the rest of the film evading both them and the police investigating the robbery. The real power of this movie is in its ability to evoke the bleak, grim and depressing world in which the story takes place. There is an anger and cynicism just beneath the surface of this movie which is held back so painfully that it will literally leave you numb for days. Every character here is ugly, hopeless, sad and resigned, but this is never overplayed. The angst never really gets out, and it stays with you long after the credits role.
In my opinion, post-classical Hollywood was American cinema's finest hour. There's a reason it's known as Hollywood's second golden age. What, for me, gives it the edge is that film-makers were suddenly not afraid to present the underbelly of American life - the other side of the American Dream - through real characters that were far from the ideal, wholesome heroes we were used to.
It's interesting that many of the reviews I've read draw so much attention to the violence in this movie. While it is fairly strong, it's hardly abundant and it's never over the top or the least bit gratuitous. There is a very precise and cynical sense of reality, which not only makes the film totally engrossing and believable but also makes it all the more moving as a consequence.