Sunday, October 25, 2009
In general, parodies only work if the creator loves whatever is being parodied (mocking that which you hate is satire). That's certainly true of Black Dynamite, a loving homage to the low-budget, often low-value blaxploitation genre. Its star and co-writer, Michael Jai White, clearly sat down with a stack of DVDs and a notepad, and the result is the finest parody film since Shaun of the Dead.
White plays Black Dynamite as a combination of Richard Roundtree and Jim Kelly, a street savior dedicated to keeping the ghetto clean who just so happens to know kung fu. When the mob kills his brother, however, all hell breaks loose. BD gets what information he can from his old CIA buddy-cum-police officer O'Leary (according to the plaque on his desk, he has neither a title nor a first name), though most of their conversations involve hysterically over-expository background details of their time in 'Nam. With the perfunctory warning that O'Leary won't tolerate a street war no matter how close their bond, Black Dynamite leaves the station and, without hesitation, starts a street war.
White, 41, has been a character actor for years, with a resumé that's bound to include at least one film you've seen. I know I've seen three of them, yet I couldn't possibly link his face or voice between them. With Black Dynamite, though, he has a role that will finally turn him into a recognizable star. White holds black belts in seven different martial arts, yet Black Dynamite's style, involving a great deal of ostentatious posturing following by one or two actual punches, fits in line more with the untrained skills of blaxploitation stars, or at least their directors' inability to film them properly. Dynamite is the sort of cat who melt a woman "with a wink and a smile," though his idea of smiling likely doesn't gel with any other person's. Though the ghetto looks upon him as a hero, BD is given to mood swings and outbursts, and more than once he explodes when someone mentions that drugs are killing the ghetto's orphans.
Using a combination of mocked-up stock footage and saturated Super 16 film, director Scott Sanders perfectly recreates the low-budget look of '70s B-movies without scratching up modern stock like Tarantino and Rodriguez did with Grindhouse. Black Dynamite moves through a neighborhood populated by people with names like Cream Corn or Honey Bee, and the homes these people live in are appropriately ostentatious; even with the film's naturally fuzzy look, the garish decorations and nauseatingly cheap interior paneling make themselves known.
Sanders appears to be having just as much fun as White: the camera often shifts out of focus without cause or lingers on a close-up long after the actor has finished speaking (to the point that they all express a certain mock discomfort). A boom mic dips so low into frame that White stops in the middle of a line to stare at it. When Black Dynamite leaps up into one of his fiery speeches of civic outrage, the camera belatedly tilts to follow the action, then overshoots and must lower again. With the dialogue containing some sort of joke in almost every line and the visual style layering jokes onto the words and filling the few gaps, not a minute of the film fails to elicit at least one laugh.
At the end of the first hour, however, Black Dynamite goes from a first-rate genre parody into a broader farce involving a conspiracy on the part of the Man to bring down the black community that ultimately leads to showdowns on Kung Fu Island, and beyond. I won't comment too much on this section as it would involve major spoilers, but suffice to say as funny as the last half hour is (the protracted process by which the gang uncovers the truth behind the evil conspiracy is one of the funniest things I've seen all year), it lacks the cohesion of what preceded it. Nevertheless, you have to give points for originality, and anyone who tells you he saw it coming is a bald-faced liar.
Black Dynamite certainly doesn't have any lessons to impart to the viewer, and I don't know if, uproarious as it was, anything in it was as parodic as a POV shot in the original Shaft in which a man attempts to strangle the camera as if it was Shaft and you can plainly see his thumbs grip the rectangular frame of the camera. But it's filled to the brim with jokes, in-jokes and metajokes, with sight gags and exceedingly clever dialogue that warrant and reward multiple viewings; heck, you'll need to see it again just to catch what you didn't hear from laughing at the previous jokes. Black Dynamite had a bit of a problem with distribution earlier in the year, when Sony Pictures dropped it after purchasing the rights at Sundance. What, did they think they wouldn't make a profit on the funniest movie of the year, and one that only cost $3 million?