Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Review - Black Dynamite

For about half an hour, as I watched Black Dynamite, I was convinced that I was watching one of the films of the year. Scott Sanders' movie is a spot-on spoof of 70's Blaxploitation cinema, and its blend of uncanny genre pastiche with deadpan humour is probably the most potent such mix since the heyday of Airplane! and The Naked Gun. The title character (played by Michael Jai White, who also co-wrote) is a Shaft-like investigator who is out to avenge his brother's death, clean up the streets, and stick it to The Man, and as he goes on a wildly convoluted journey, Sanders and his production team lovingly recreate that era's cinema with a bewildering attention to detail. Technically, this film is a flawless piece of work. I just wish it had enough jokes to fill out its 80-minute running time.

Black Dynamite runs out of steam like you wouldn't believe in its second half, which is a damn shame because it opens brilliantly. Sanders sets the tone early on, introducing his hero as he pleasures three ethnically diverse women at the same time. When he's finished, they each coo their satisfaction, prompting Black Dynamite to say, "Shh, Mama. You're gonna wake up the rest of the bitches" as he points to the two other women snoozing under the covers. He is the epitome of black male virility and he embodies every possible cliché of the Blaxploitation leading man; he is simultaneously a killer, a lothario, a kung-fu master and a traumatised war veteran. White plays the role dead straight and manages to create a character that is both an archetype and a memorable protagonist in his own right, which typifies the careful balancing act the filmmakers have attempted to achieve here. This is not a spoof in the same vein as the atrocious Jason Friedberg/Aaron Seltzer films, which lazily cobble together references for a cheap laugh of recognition. Instead, it is closer in spirit to something like Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, a film that both sends up its genre while offering a thoroughly convincing facsimile of it.

Sanders never wavers from the 70's aesthetic. Car chases are filmed with the aid of rear projection, stock footage is clumsily cut into the action (often more than once) and the fights are hilariously unconvincing. The boom mic keeps dropping into shot (at one point, it nestles atop White's afro as he tries to deliver a monologue) and there are continuity errors aplenty, the most startling of which sees one actor being replaced by another mid-scene. This might sound like a compendium of easy targets, but I don't want to undersell the quality of Black Dynamite's painstaking homage. Shawn Maurer's Super 16 cinematography perfectly replicates the crudely lit and washed-out look of cheap 70's movies, with his camera often zooming clumsily to find the focus of the scene. The production design is convincing, and Adrian Younge's music – including the repeated motif "Dy-no-mite! Dy-no-mite!" – is perfectly in tune with the times. Everything just feels so right.

So where does it all go wrong? It's hard to pinpoint exactly, but before the film had even reached the hour point I was beginning to feel the strain. Too many of the jokes in the film's final two-thirds are variations or repetitions of jokes spun in the opening third, and when the gags start to dry up, the 'plot' – outlandish and overwrought as you'd expect – proves to be an unworthy substitute. The drawn-out fights begin to feel rather interminable by the end, and I couldn't help feeling that there's a short film masterpiece buried in here somewhere. Still, Black Dynamite has some truly inspired sequences (the deduction scene involving Greek and Roman mythology is priceless), and even if the laughs aren't evenly distributed, I don't think I can be too hard on a movie that can deliver a line like "Doughnuts don't wear alligator shoes" and keep a straight face.