Tuesday, February 16, 2010

On DVD: "Black Dynamite"

Scott Sanders' Black Dynamite is a broad blaxpoitation parody that knows all the words and none of the music. There are laughs in it, to be sure, some of them robust. But it is primarily a triumph of photography and design, and the script that they serve is undercooked and weak--a one-joke premise that wears mighty thin by the time the film's brief-but-somehow-flabby 90 minutes come to an end.

Michael Jai White stars as the title character, a former CIA commando who is called back into action on the mean streets when his brother is killed and he gets word that drug dealers are selling smack to orphans. White, a muscley smooth talker with a killer Afro and matching mustache, mostly plays it straight, much to his credit (he only fails when he plays it too broad, as in the scene where he finds out about those orphans). Most of the other supporting players are too clearly in the joke, winking at the audience at mugging wildly, forgetting the main rule of successful parody (established most memorably in Airplane!), which is to take the role absolutely seriously, no matter how ridiculous your surroundings. Byron Minns, for example, plays Bullhorn, a rhyming club-owner clearly modeled on Rudy Ray Moore (specifically on his role in Disco Godfather, a film literally quoted at one point early in this one). But Minns plays him with a big grin, laughing at his own jokes, and it's the wrong approach entirely--part of the charm of the Moore films is how seriously he takes himself, as if he's really a credible action hero and the serious message of a picture like Disco Godfather isn't completely laughable.

To be fair, some of the gags--especially those that come early on--do work, like the car chase that ends with the fiery crash of a car that doesn't match up, or a montage of Black Dynamite and his crew cleaning up the streets with the help of hilariously mismatched stock footage. But there are also plenty of would-be comic set pieces that just lie there, like a meeting of pimps and hustlers (including a brief and uninspired appearance by Arsenio Hall) and a sex scene played out in cartoons and astrology symbols. In these moments, and in the opening scenes, Sanders and his screenwriters don't do the hard work of writing comedy--they're so impressed with their own cleverness that they forget to put in the punch lines.

Through much of the film, though, the design elements do most of the heavy lifting. Black Dynamite looks just right, as if it were an honest-to-goodness blaxpoitation picture that's been sitting in a vault for thirty-plus years. Cinematographer Shawn Maurer doesn't go the Grindhouse route, aging the film in post-production; instead, he shoots on a Super-16 color reversal stock, creating a high-contrast, richly saturated image, well-augmented by excellent imitations of the clunky camerawork and awkward framing that became part of the template. Sanders and his writers do manage the nail the tin-eared expositional dialogue (currently heard in the soap-opera minstrel shows of Tyler Perry), and the sound mixers even manage to replicate the slightly-hollow sound quality of those old dialogue scenes. Adrian Younge's original score is spot-on as well, full of funny trills and "Dynamite!" vocal hits. Ruth E. Carter's costume design couldn't be better, and the sets are a hoot (particularly the wonderfully chintzy White House interiors of the closing sequence).

However, the karate scenes are played too straight and look too good (at least compared to the oeuvre of the aforementioned Rudy Ray Moore); an early kung-fu training scene lands some laughs from its stilted choreography and poorly-timed editing, but that's abandoned later, for no good reason. Sanders makes another key error in utilizing some obvious CG (for a man on fire) and green-screen (when Dynamite parachutes out of a chopper); it looks and feels wrong, wrong, wrong, blowing the carefully replicated vintage aesthetic.

Black Dynamite mocks blaxpoitation pictures with affection, and make no mistake, they're easy to sneer at. Those filmmakers were often making it up as they went along, doing their best with ridiculously low budgets and limited resources. But part of the reason that so many of them have survived and influenced filmmakers today was that their energy was undeniable. Little to none of that energy is evident in this send-up, which lurches from scene to scene and often leaves its cast standing around in period costumes on period sets, waiting for something funny to happen. It works in places as a parody, but also has the misfortune of following the Grindhouse films to the marketplace--which worked both as spoofs and as their own enjoyable entertainments. In Black Dynamite, not much happens once they've wrung the easy laughs out of the premise.

If I'm a little hard on Black Dynamite, it's mostly out of disappointment--I was genuinely excited to see if after taking in its brilliant trailer last year. The trouble is, you'll get about as much out of the film as you will from that trailer (the clothes, the cars, the action, the flawless recreation of period low-budget filmmaking), but it's 88 minutes shorter and it's free.

"Black Dynamite" is out today on DVD and Blu-ray. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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