The blaxploitation genre boasts at least a dozen entries whose titles alone should be recognized by even the most casual movie lovers, from Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song to Blacula, Dolemite, Super Fly, Shaft, The Mack, Foxy Brown, and many others. Gilbert Moses' Willie Dynamite (1974) might not make the short list but remains an enjoyable -- and dare I say durable -- little film in its own right. Though saddled with the same up-front misogyny and genre tropes that rarely make blaxploitation a serious topic of discussion, it's also got a keenly self-aware sense of humor and a rippling undercurrent of social justice that make it worth revisiting...not to mention a pimp-tastic lead performance by Roscoe Orman, best known as Gordon from Sesame Street (a career-defining role he landed later the same year).
Younger viewers whose closest exposure to the genre is 2009's Black Dynamite or buying vintage thrift-store clothes will find Willie Dynamite as good a starting point as any: the film's ultra-colorful outfits, well-choreographed action scenes, amazing soundtrack, and solid performances make this an accessible and easy watch, while its multi-layered story elevates viewer involvement a little higher than expected. The title character (Orman) is a flamboyant New York City pimp with, according to his theme song, "seven women in the palm of his hand" that service the needs of high-class businessmen. He's got dreams of being the city's number-one pimp, thinks of his women as empowered conquerors, and considers his career as no different than any other industry. But Willie's also a noted cocaine dealer and tax evader, and that -- combined with recent pressure from corrupt cops, the district attorney (Thalmus Rasulala), and a relentless social worker who doubles as the DA's girlfriend (Diana Sands) -- threatens to end his career before he reaches the top.
So while typical genre fare is usually about fighting The Man, Willie Dynamite's diverse cast and brash anti-hero manage to flip the script somewhat. Our title character is, at times, tough to root for but carries a certain amount of integrity even in his worst moments. Orman's performance helps as well: though first time viewers might be tempted to roast his decidedly less moral turn here, he loses himself almost completely in the title role and helps keep the film running smoothly. Diana Sands -- also excellent in the stage and original film version of Lorraine Hansbury's A Raisin in the Sun -- isn't too far behind, either: she makes a great foil for Willie and steals a countless number of scenes. (Tragically, Sands died of cancer before the film's theatrical release, and Willie Dynamite is listed as her penultimate big-screen appearance.)
Whether you're in it for the action, costume design, story, or just enjoy low-budget 1970's cinema, Gilbert Moses' Willie Dynamite remains an entertaining and enjoyable production that's managed to hold up better than most in its class. There are obvious flaws along the way and a good chunk of its comedic value is unintentional, but as a whole this is one of blaxploitation's more underrated entries. Arrow's new Blu-ray package follows its dual-format Region B edition from last year...and while they aren't identical or well-rounded, die-hard fans and newcomers alike should enjoy themselves.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, this new 1080p transfer of Willie Dynamite -- presumably the same one used for Arrow's Region B edition last year -- looks outstanding from top to bottom. (It's advertised as being "transferred from original film elements by Universal", just for the record.) This is an extremely colorful film and the palette supports it well with vivid hues and excellent contrast levels. Textures also fare very well, especially in the areas of high fashion, makeup, and unique interior decorating. Black levels, grain structure, and overall image detail are quite strong (especially so during daytime outdoor sequences) and there's virtually no print damage either. It's obvious that Willie Dynamite was treated with extreme care, as this is easily one of the best-looking catalog titles from the era that I've seen on Blu-ray this year. Fans will be enormously pleased, as I'd say the transfer is almost worth the price of admission alone.
NOTE: The images on this page do not necessarily represent the title under review.
Arrow serves up a PCM 1.0 track that replicates the film's one-channel roots perfectly well, with crisp audio and cleanly-recorded effects...within the film's low-budget boundaries, of course. The soundtrack, which kicks all kinds of ass, sounds better than ever. Willie Dynamite isn't as action-packed as the trailer makes it out to be, but it achieves a good amount of depth and balance when things heat up. Optional English (SDH) subtitles are included during the film only.
Arrow's basic but attractive interface has separate options for audio/subtitle setup and bonus features (which, like Criterion's, are often individually described in detail). This one-disc release is packaged in a clear keepcase with original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips. The full-color Booklet features a new essay by critic Cullen Gallagher, promotional stills, an abridged cast/crew list, other bits of new artwork, and a few brief tech specs.
Click each poster image for a high-res version.
Arrow's Region B edition featured one extra: "Kiss My Baad Asss", a guide to blaxploitation hosted by actor and musician Ice-T and featuring interviews with Richard Roundtree, Melvin van Peebles, Isaac Hayes, and others. Unfortunately, that's not included here. This Region A disc trades off for an exclusive feature-length Audio Commentary with film critic and lecturer Sergio Mims, who also hosts Bad Mutha' Film Show and is a co-programmer of the Black Harvest Film Festival at Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center. This is a pretty informative and overall enjoyable track but starts off with a lot of entry-level trivia including a bit of blaxploitation history, the career-defining role of its lead, social commentary, and a lot of name-checking for Willie Dynamite's bit players and supporting characters. There's some good info here, but it's a shame the featurette couldn't have been included too. Other than the commentary, all we get is the film's Theatrical Trailer...but at least it's in widescreen, has been fully restored, and looks just as impressive as the main feature itself.
Willie Dynamite is an obvious standout in a narrow genre that has at least a half-dozen more well-known entries. It's not a life-changing movie but certainly has its moments, as well as the added value of some self-aware social commentary. Lead and supporting performances are good to excellent across the board, even though a small chunk of its comedic value is unintentional. Bottom line: Willie Dynamite has aged better than most of its kind...and if you're a fan of blaxploitation at all, I shouldn't have to tell you it's still a good time. Arrow's Blu-ray package used most of its resources on restoration and packaging, as the film looks and sounds great but is pretty thin on bonus features -- unless you really, really love audio commentaries, this is practically a barebones disc. I'd recommend Arrow's Region B disc if you've got the equipment, but Willie Dynamite still carries enough goodwill to cruise by with passing marks. Mildly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work and runs a website or two. In his free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.