CATEGORIES Action, Comedy, Sundance, Theatrical Reviews, Sundance Reviews 2009, Reviews, Sundance Film Festival, Cinematical
The spoof (aka broad parody) sub-genre is a schizophrenic beast. At its best, the spoof can treat you to something as sublime as Airplane!, as mindlessly amusing as the Scary Movie series, or as stunningly worthless as Epic Movie. But the spoof remains the comedy sub-genre for filmmakers who are also movie geeks. Basically, you need to have seen a lot of Airport movies to write Airplane!, and you need to have some solid experience with blaxploitation movies to produce something like Hollywood Shuffle, I'm Gonna Get You Sucka, or this newest arrival: The slightly overlong but consistently giggle-worthy Black Dynamite, which aims to do to Shaft and Superfly what The Naked Gun did to police procedurals.
And for the most part, the experiment works like a charm. What I found most appealing about Black Dynamite is that, while it will certainly strike a chord with the old-school blaxploitation fans, the flick also works on its own as a very broad, very goofy, and (yep) very clever little satire. Even if you wouldn't know Hammer from Blacula, there's a good deal of straightforward silliness to be found in Black Dynamite -- and it also feels like one of those eminently quotable comedies that frat guys and movie geeks will come back to time and again. Black Dynamite is to blaxploitation what Austin Powers is to '60s spy flicks -- and really, how many young comedy fans know anything about In Like Flint, Sweet Charity, or Modesty Blaise? Very few, I'd wager, but that didn't prevent Austin Powers from becoming a mega-popular franchise.
Director Scott Sanders and a team of screenwriters have concocted a '70s-era comedy that, to its credit, actually manages to evoke several of the sub-genres staples: Our hero is a noble ass-kicker who uses odd slang; women hang on his every gesture; villains quake at the sight of Black Dynamite's fighting stance; and of course the proceedings are coated with a colorful sheen of tacky clothes, crazy cars, and hilariously over-the-top fight scenes.
But the one fear that arose between the time I saw the (hilarious) Black Dynamite trailer and the entire film -- that the flick would have a hard time sustaining its tone for 90-some minutes -- was quickly squashed by the pitch-perfect lead performance of a stunningly funny Michael Jai White. He's got the body of Jim Kelly, the attitude of Richard Roundtree, the bad-ass street skills of Fred Williamson, and (best of all) the comic timing of an Eddie Murphy. Even through the handful of slow spots found in Black Dynamite, Mr. White is quite excellent in a 'make or break' role. Just like the wonderfully obtuse Leslie Nielsen is the key component in the Naked Gun series, Michael Jai White throws the whole movie on his back and wins you over by sheer force of straight-faced silliness.
And that's the key to a good spoof, when all is said and done: The characters can NOT be in on the joke, and this is a perspective that Sanders and White nail with a satisfying consistency. Best of all, when it's not doling out slapsticky fight scenes or skewering genre-specific conventions, Black Dynamite is happy to trade in bizarre non-sequiters, unexpected weirdness, and cleverly profane banter that will yank a few chuckles from even the newbiest blaxploitation fan.
I grew up in the golden days of the spoof flick, and I've always had a soft spot for the oft-maligned sub-genre. So while it's true that a lot of lazy and generally talentless filmmakers rely on the spoof approach (probably because broad jokes seem easier to pull off?), there will always be room for new entries that poke fun at genre-specific trappings while maintaining a healthy respect for the films they're lampooning. Black Dynamite seems to really love the blaxploitation action flicks, but not enough to avoid mocking it within an inch of its life. So while it's certainly not the second coming of Airplane!, Black Dynamite is more than fast, funny, and likable enough to warrant a visit. Triply so if you happen to be a blaxploitation fan.