Saturday 12 December 2009

Black Dynamite (2009)

Director: Scott Sanders
Star: Michael Jai White
If anyone hadn't realised what Black Dynamite was from the title or the awesome trailers, the opening fake commercial for Anaconda Malt Liquor slams the point home. A hip black cat called Leon St James tells us and his young afroed lady with the huge earrings about the only malt liquor with a seal of approval from Uncle Sam himself. 'When you pop the top, the panties drop,' he pronounces before breaking into disco song. As with everything throughout this blaxploitation spoof, this spot is done with a lot of care and attention paid to the details: the accents, the costumes, the poses, even the grain of the film. Rather than throw in digital scratches and deterioration, they shot on Kodak Super 16 Color Reversal film so that it looked old but pristine.

The title Black Dynamite isn't just rhetoric, it's the name of the lead character, who has all the other credentials you might expect down too. Former CIA agent? Check. Served in Nam? Check. Grew up in an orphanage? Check. He's so tough that he locks the gates when he goes up against a dozen opponents in a pool hall so they can't run away. He's such a dynamo in the sack that when three women, multiracial of course and played by porn stars, look up from his bed to thank them for such an awesome night he has to quieten them down before they wake up the rest of the bitches. He has a pimpin' pad with a dojo to practice his kung fu in and an 8-track player in every room. His impact is even introduced to us in no uncertain terms by the cop that discovers the body of his only brother Jimmy, shot through with holes in the warehouse district. 'You're never gonna believe what's coming down now,' he raves and he isn't kidding.

Black Dynamite, who has no other name, is played by Michael Jai White, who is so good at this that he could easily follow Jim Kelly or Fred Williamson into his own string of serious blaxploitation movies and I really hope he does. It doesn't hurt that he's truly ripped and he's a black belt in seven disciplines of martial arts. I should add that while that sounds like just another hyperbole in a film full of it, that one's real. The film belongs utterly to him, not just as its primary actor but also as a writer, who came up with the original concept for the story and co-wrote it with Byron Minns and the film's director, Scott Sanders. I don't know how he managed to speak the dialogue without laughing, especially with so many comedians in the cast, from Arsenio Hall on down, but he does it perfectly.

Brother Jimmy is an undercover agent working for the CIA trying to find the source of the smack that's flooding the ghetto streets and turning even the kids at the orphanage into addicts. Of course he hasn't got anything remotely like a ghetto accent so the bad guys rumble him, kill him and dump him with smack in his pocket, triggering the reaction that is our movie. The story meanders all over the place from there, so it's pointless to even suggest a synopsis, but that's part of the film's charm. It's so easy to see blaxploitation as a single genre but it really wasn't. Super Fly was as different from Foxy Brown as they both were from from Black Samurai, but Black Dynamite attempts to combine influences from all of them.
One thing that quickly leaps out is that it's as much an affectionate tribute to kung fu cinema of the same era as to blaxploitation, from the blatant Bruce Lee moves to the character of Fiendish Dr Wu, played by the fight choroegrapher of the film, Roger Yuan. I think 'Your knowledge of scientific biological transmogrification is only outmatched by your zest for kung-fu treachery!' may become my favourite movie line of all time, the only catch being that I'll never be able to use it. Instead of Shaft and Black Caesar, I left the theatre wanting to go home and watch Jim Kelly movies like Black Belt Jones and The Tattoo Connection. Kelly was also one of the three leads in Three the Hard Way, which I haven't seen but which would appear to be the biggest single influence on this film.

White, Minns and Sanders are obviously huge fans of this sort of material. As they've pointed out in interviews, they were raised on blaxploitation, which was the first time they saw black heroes on the screen, however dubious they may have been on occasion. They grew up watching Jim Brown and Ron O'Neal on the football field then followed these names over to the movie screen, where they were the sort of tough and powerful black heroes that just weren't around before Shaft and Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. After all, Hollywood had Sidney Poitier but that was it. They fantasised to I Dream of Jeannie just like everyone else in the country until blaxploitation hit and they saw people like Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson. They really grok the blaxploitation vibe, which is evident in the very veins of this movie. Can you dig it?

It's there in the use of fades and variable focus and split screen, the latter being used better here than anywhere else I can remember. It's there in the use of redundant dialogue, dialogue that's redundant, which had me laughing out loud at the redundant dialogue. It's there in the use of the soundtrack, which is the first such that I've wanted to buy in a long time, probably the last being LĂ©olo and Netherworld, coincidentally both released in 1992. Beyond being intrinsically cool, the soundtrack here is more like another character, never really leaving the film but wandering in and out of the background, sometimes like a punctuation mark, sometimes interplaying with the dialogue like instruments in a jazz band.

More than anything it's there in the little details which to my knowledge have never been done this well, because there are as many subtle instances as there are blatant ones. Most people making a film like this would know to throw in a scene where a car explodes as it drives off a cliff rather than when it hits the bottom, and some would even be bright enough to reuse the scene later on for a completely different incident with a completely different car in a completely different location. However most wouldn't think to have Black Dynamite clear a room of martial arts experts with consummate skill but then fail to put a phone back on the hook, and its in these details where the film comes into its own. BD can twirl his nunchucks around like a pro but when they inadvertently fly off screen during a fight a crew member throws them back to him and he carries on regardless. This is what one take shooting is all about. When a man with a machine gun opens fire on him from pretty close range he gets only a single hit to the shoulder and the plate glass windows right behind him remain completely unbroken.
The best has to be the scene where Black Dynamite stands up to spout his ethos at brothel madam Honeybee, only for the crew to be caught unawares. The cameraman doesn't follow him immediately, but still reacts quickly and moves up to get him back in frame, only to leave the boom mike stuck in the top of the picture. Black Dynamite ignores it heroically but eventually succumbs to the temptation to sneak glances at it while it's bouncing off his afro. If there's a scene anywhere else in modern cinema that rings truer as a spoof and an affectionate tribute to a past era all at once, I'd love to know what it is. These details ring utterly true and they're everywhere, making this a true gem to the genre fan.

For probably half the film this is so true to form that it could have been a seventies blaxploitation movie. Then it gets a little more out there, taking roads that would never have been taken back in the day, or so I thought as I watched it. The more I think about blaxploitation, especially the really exploitative examples that I haven't seen yet, the more appropriate this half gets. Three the Hard Way was built around a plot by white supremacists to eradicate the black population by contaminating the US water supply with targetted chemicals. Welcome Home Brother Charles has a black man subjected to medical experimentation in prison that turns his genitalia into the sort of enormous weapon you'd expect more from Japanese hentai. Here we have the combination of the two, hitting so close to the heart of blaxploitation paranoia that our heroes even shoot one of their number dead when they realise that his manhood has been shrivelled. To a blaxploitation hero, emasculation is even worse than death.

There's just so much here that a single review can't do it justice and everyone in the cast lives up to the task. Most spoof films are full of actors playing cartoons or caricatures. This one is full of actors who look like they hadn't left the early seventies. They don't look like they're wearing costumes, however outrageous those costumes are. Everything is a move or a pose but none of them look like they were practised or put on. The thick moustaches and afros feel real, all the way down to Gunsmoke's bald head and black beard. Perhaps in the hands of Arsenio Hall the character of Tasty Freeze is a little like a sketch character, but that's as far as that goes. It isn't restricted to the black characters either, white folks like Kevin Chapman and Richard Edson simply exuding sleazy CIA agent or Italian mafioso respectively.

Now, I need to get round to my blaxploitation marathon, perhaps headed off by the last couple of spoofs, I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, made in 1988 by Keenen Ivory Wayans, and Malcolm D Lee's Undercover Brother from 2002. Both benefit from cameos from legends back in the day, such as Billy Dee Williams, Antonio Fargas, Isaac Hayes and Jim Brown, but I bet neither of them is a patch on this. This made me want to go out and find a restaurant selling chicken and waffles, or chili and donuts. Those are so quintessentially American that they simply can't be fake and neither is this movie. Who cares about all these modern black urban dancing movies anyway? This is what black exploitation cinema was all about and I have a feeling it's the best thing in that vein that's been made since the seventies. I loved it.

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