Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Black Dynamite (Scott Sanders, 2009) Review

Black's back baby, and he knows kung fu... Black Dynamite (2009)

A smooth talkin' cat with an eye for the ladies, the eponymous hero of Scott Sanders Black Dynamite - a baadasssss homage to the 70's sub-genre which gave us Shaft (Parks, 1971) and Super Fly (Parks Jr, 1972) - is about as cool as movie cops get, but this one's got a difference: he knows it. Dynamite (Michael Jai White) is an operative whose brother was killed during an undercover operation, and now he's out for revenge. Drugs are infecting the streets, turning orphans into heroin addicts, and a new drink by the name of 'Anaconda' is sweeping the nation. There's something very wrong going on, and Black Dynamite is determined to find out what. In fact, he takes his brand of chop-socky kung-fu all the way to the White House...

Truth be told, most blaxploitation films have dated badly - they're products of their time which now act as jazzy, sexed-up artifacts of crime cinema. A recent revival in exploitation (from the likes of Viva, 2007, to Planet Terror, 2007) has sorely missed the chance to capitalize on the winning formula of these films, and Black Dynamite - halfway between homage and spoof - is about as close as we're going to get. Honestly, there's not much room for complaint. The sets are perfect - all leopard skin and satin, featuring retro diners and sleazy hotels populated by jive-talkin' suckas ("I'm blacker than the ace of spades!"). The costumes are also period-perfect, announcing themselves in garishly coloured skin-tight leather. Everything from the intentionally grainy film stock to the chorus line of the theme tune screams 70s, and while its heart is in the right place, it's not perfect. For two reasons.

Firstly, there's that sneaky postmodernism. One thing I love so much about blaxploitation is the fact that it was a genre of gender equality. Hear me out. For every Shaft there was a Foxy Brown (Hill, 1974), for every Super Fly a Cleopatra Jones (Starrett, 1973), and these girls could pack heat. They were cool - sex was their weapon, along with a Magnum .47. Yes, there was a strand of blaxploitation which saw women as objects, in which the rule of thumb was: the more buxom the babe, the more evil the villain whose leg she cradles. Because Black Dynamite is cast with a postmodernist touch, it seems to think it can get away with such simplistic attitudes towards women, but it can't. Just because it's done with a wink n' a smile, can we excuse the complete redundancy of the film's female characters, and continue ignoring the likes of Coffy's (Hill, 1973) Pam Grier? Black Dynamite is a male-lead action movie, with most of the females busy gettin' busy with one of our protagonists. American critic Roger Ebert stated that the film marked the return of "much-needed gratuitous nudity". Of course, the man who co-penned Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (Meyer, 1970) would say that, and the film's obvious sexism does begin to grate. It raises a few laughs, sure, but also a critical eyebrow, and by the midway point I was left desperately wanting Foxy Brown to turn up and start kickin' some ass.

The second problem lies in the story itself. Black Dynamite seems to forget that blaxploitation may have drawn in audiences with their sex, violence and catchy theme tunes, but they also told some pretty solid crime stories. They were hardly noir level - T.N.T. Jackson (Santiago, 1974) is no Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) after all, but they were engaging tales told trashily well. The 'twist' in Black Dynamite may be absurdly funny, but it's not in any way engaging and at the same time that the film's sexism begins to grate, its one-note gag is wearing thin. The film is an absolute blast, and it's superbly written by Michael Jai White, Byron Minns and Scott Sanders, but the plot is awful, and there are too many gaps between the (admittedly inspired) jokes for us to forgive it that.

Perhaps I'm expecting too much of Black Dynamite. Perhaps the fact that its 77 minute running time flies by, mixing kung-fu with expert comedy is good enough. It's not trying to be The Godfather (Coppola, 1972) and to be honest, I did forgive Bitch Slap (Jacobson, 2009) for the exact same misgivings just a week or so ago. As an homage it's loving, and as a nostalgia trip I'm sure it works fine. As a comedy, it's exceptional. Even the send-up of action movie clich├ęs (one character begins emoting about wanting to start a family when he gets back from the mission; he's shortly dispatched by a spear) seem perfect. Postmodern or not, Black Dynamite needs a woman's touch, but overall this is top-notch entertainment - super bad, super cool and most importantly, just pretty darn super.

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