Monday, December 21, 2009

Black Dynamite is outta sight! (and later out of steam)

Black Dynamite is the spiritual sibling (one might even say "soul brotha") of 2007's double-feature experiment Grindhouse, in that it takes a classic exploitation trope of yesteryear and tweaks it just enough to make it relatable to modern audiences. In Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez took the subgenre of Italian zombie films that popped up in the wake of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, reimported them into the American cinematic syntax, and added modern digital effects to achieve some gonzo concepts that kept with the mentality of his inspirations, although not their actual execution. Quentin Tarantino's approach in his hybrid action-horror segment Death Proof was to replace the mind-bogglingly dull dialogue of lesser grindhouse films with his own brand of post-ironic banter -- which, within the provided context, wasn't any less dull, but it was certainly more inane.

Black Dynamite director Scott Sanders and stars/co-writers Michael Jai White and Byron Minns start with a loving, if slightly cheeky, homage to 1970s blaxploitation pics like Cotton Comes to Harlem, Gordon's War, Shaft, and Black Belt Jones, and slowly begin to add layers of influence from a different source -- the spoofs of Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker (The Kentucky Fried Movie, Airplane, The Naked Gun). Instead of modernizing their concept, Sanders, White, and Minns create an unexpected but very welcome connection between two very different genres, making it a more successful homage than either of the two Grindhouse films, at least for the first two-thirds. Despite losing control of the escalating comedy elements in the final third, the filmmakers still have a lot to be proud of here.

What I love most about Black Dynamite (and what ultimately makes the last act so frustrating), is the restraint it shows at the beginning. Sanders and company understand that comedy, like suspense, is something you build -- something you earn. With that in mind, they keep their intentions close to the chest. The introduction of Black Dynamite (White), our composite blaxploitation hero (he's a former CIA agent, an expert in kung fu, and he plays by nobody's rules but his own), is played only slightly tongue-in-cheek -- the situations are knowingly cliche and the dialogue just a bit too arch to be serious. Most of the early gags involve the particulars of low-budget exploitation films in general -- frames are randomly dropped, a boom mike eases into frame, and one character smokes an unlit cigarette.

As the actual plot is brought in, direct nudges at blaxploitation cinema come in. Not only must Black Dynamite avenge the murder of his brother Jimmy by gangsters, but he also has to investigate the introduction of drugs into the community by those same gangsters. The funk soundtrack becomes key to the comedy at some junctures, as Adrian Younge's mood-setting lyrics often provide an accurate description of the scene we're watching! We're introduced to characters with names like Cream Corn (Tommy Davidson), Bullhorn (Minns), and Chicago Wind (Mykelti Williamson), who alternately hinder and help Black Dynamite on his quest for justice.

Before we've even realized the subtle evolution of the film's tone, it's already working on adding another layer to the comedy -- making fun of its eponymous hero. This is probably Black Dynamite's most sublime comic work. Poking fun at an already comedic construct should feel like more of the same; it shouldn't be unexpectedly side-splitting. The key here is really in Michael Jai White's performance. From the first frame he's in, he establishes Black Dynamite as a righteous, nigh-unflappable mofo who can get the job done, someone's who's just too damned competent at everything. Right as that characterization starts to get stale, however, White introduces a fallibility we didn't even know we'd been begging for. When Black Dynamite loses his legendary cool at a prostitute who's only crime is interrupting his jive monologue, the timing couldn't be more perfect -- the moment is where we want it to be in the scene and the scene is exactly where we need it to be in the film.

There are occasional sequences that drag on too long and one in particular (Black Dynamite and his crew cleaning up the streets) that is over before you can register it started. These are minor hiccups, though, and there are great moments within these scenes that make their unfortunate pacing forgivable.

However, the last act of Black Dynamite goes completely off the rails. During what seems like a climactic raid on a warehouse, Black Dynamite discovers that a new villain, hiding at a remote location, is responsible for the evil goings-on. I assumed that the movie would cut to a faux trailer for Black Dynamite 2 or something, because it would be ridiculous (and not in a way consistent with the film's humor up to this point) for them to go face this new, completely unforeshadowed threat now. Well, the movie does keep going, shifting into a weak, cut-down imitation of A Fistful of Yen (from The Kentucky Fried Movie). Then the movie gets even dumber still in a sequence I can't describe without making it sound ten times more awesome than it actually is. I think Sanders wants his audience yelling, "No f**king WAY!" but instead the response is, "You've gotta be f**king kidding me."

It hurts when a movie like Black Dynamite squanders its good will. There's so much that I love about the film's understanding of comedy, timing, and how to turn expectation into laughter. Alas, none of that understanding is apparent when the film enters its final act. A shame, too. Black Dynamite starts out as one bad mothaf**ka, but by the time the credits roll, it's transformed into a jive turkey.

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