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.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
The 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer is startlingly faithful to the grainy, super-saturated aesthetic of the film's theatrical presentation--and, of course, the low-budget 70s pictures it apes. Every ugly color in the film's gaudy palate is beautifully reproduced, while contrast is solid and details are sharply rendered. The 16mm grain is always present and mostly successful at pulling us into the period, though the haze gets a tad too thick in a few spots (most of them tight close-ups). The occasional pieces of stock footage are, of course, noticeably rougher, but the contrast actually helps clarify what's old and what's new (I spotted a few shots lifted from the recent Cinematic Titanic target East Meets Watts). The 1.85:1 image is far from perfect, but it perfectly recreates the look and feel of blaxpoitation cinema.
The disc's English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is impressively vibrant, nicely capturing the gunshots, effects, and non-stop music of the picture's very busy sound design. Every overdone punch and karate chop lands with a wallop, while gunfire is sharp and explosions pack plenty of low-end punch. Separation and directionality are also arresting, and while dialogue is occasionally a touch hollow, that affectation (as mentioned above) appears deliberate. Overall, it's a sturdy, enjoyable audio presentation.
English, English SDH, and French subtitles are also available.
Director/co-writer Scott Sanders, actor/co-writer Michael Jai White, and actor/co-writer Byron Minns contribute an Audio Commentary track; it's laid-back and has a few laughs, but for the most part it's pretty listless (with plenty of long pauses and awkward silences).
Seventeen Deleted and Alternate Scenes (25:15 total) follow; most are uninspired. "Lighting The Fuse" (22:48) is an interesting and well-assembled making-of featurette, detailing the film's unusual road to the screen. "The '70s: Back in Action" (14:13) takes a closer look at the film's influences, and how they seeped into the finished film. "The Comic-Con Experience" (18:04) features excerpts from the film's panel at the San Diego International Comic Con, as moderated by Elvis Mitchell; though it's fun to watch the creators and the crowd interact, there's an awful lot of repeated material here. Ten Trailers finish out the disc, though the pitch-perfect teasers for this film are nowhere to be found.
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.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.