Black Dynamite (2009) Review

"Black Dynamite" French Theatrical Poster

“Black Dynamite” French Theatrical Poster

Director: Scott Sanders
Cast: Michael Jai White, Salli Richardson, Arsenio Hall, Kevin Chapman, Tommy Davidson
Running Time: 90 min.

By Ningen

Black Dynamite’s an ex-CIA agent and Vietnam vet who returns to the force when he finds out his brother OD’ed. He teams up with pimps, hustlers, and Black Panthers to take down the local mob dumping a type of heroin into the black community. What he finds out is that the drug trade is really a front for a bigger conspiracy to humiliate African-American males in a personal way.

Literally taking place in the 70s, BD’s a tribute to the blaxploitation action films of that era. The lead, played by Michael Jai White, is dressed like Jim Brown, fights like Jim Kelly, and plays around like Rudy Ray Moore. Tough as nails, BD doesn’t let anyone mess with him. And his come-backs are even meaner than his fists. So he persistently follows the trail of corruption all the way to the top while cleaning up his neighborhood in the process.

Anyway, after seeing Black Dynamite, I have to say that White’s really gotten short-changed on parts in Hollywood. While I hated Spawn, it wasn’t ‘cus of him. And if Tarantino can make room for girls talking about boring bullshit in Death Proof, he can also let me see a fight between David Carradine and White’s character in Kill Bill. And unlike Rourke or Perlman, White’s got the build and looks to take on more mainstream action roles. [No offense to those other guys, of course.] So it’s maybe not so ironic to find him getting playing the main character in an homage to a genre which was created in response to Hollywood’s inability to cast minority actors for lead roles. While that has changed a bit over the years [Can you imagine the outcry if Denzel or Will Smith was replaced by some skinny, white 20-something nobody?], the industry is still a little behind the times in some ways.

For example, why can Justin Lin find Asian actors for his movies, but major studios can’t find anyone Asian to play the Asian characters in the Hollywood versions of Dragonball, the non-Cameron Avatar, or King of Fighters? And why couldn’t a certain nameless studio take a chance on a Robert Rodriguez remake of Barbarella, when it had no problem blowing money on Evan Almighty or a “gritty” version of Miami Vice? Finally, why is Disney trailing the Japanese in coming up with an animated lead character who’s black?

On the other hand, when the suits do cast black actors for parts, at least they’re no longer as relegated to stereotypes, an unfortunate negative off-shoot of the genre which Black Dynamite gleefully skews, even as it celebrates the style of those films. Shot with low-resolution lenses, costumed with suits which you might not even find at most thrift shops any more, and featuring cars you might not even find at a junkyard any more, Black Dynamite is truly committed to authenticity. The era reflected in that flick might not appeal to people used to paying for tickets in order to pop open their PDAs and cell phones in theaters during a screening, but for the rest of us who could use a good intentional action-comedy this year, it’s a life-saver.

The action in Black Dynamite isn’t, for obvious purposes, very serious. But it does come off authentic for the time, with its overdubs of the actors’ voices made during connecting hits, combined with a cheap mish-mash of martial arts-inspired street-fighting, as well as old-school b-movie “bang bang, you’re dead” gun fighting. [You know, before people had to do back-flips to aim their pieces.] It does help that White has some actual experience in action and martial arts, but the fights are clearly meant to be a farce, rather than something serious.

Black Dynamite also goes for the straight man approach to comedy featured in Naked Gun, rather than the deconstructive approach used in the other blaxploitation spoof, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. Thus, the characters often wind up making inappropriate comments out of turn, rather than acting like they’re self-aware of being in a blaxploitation movie. And even the background music summarizes the story at one point, making the movie more satisfyingly surreal than you’d expect from a one-joke comedy.

As for the story itself, there’s no real point to watching the movie for that. It tends to drag unnecessarily longer than it needs to, and it’d be considered cartoonish, if it were in a real action movie. The real meat of Black Dynamite is the use of punch-lines and one-liners throughout the film. You have to be patient to get to them, but they do pay off most of the time, because they’re so creative and so often used at the right moments, that you wonder if they weren’t ad-libbed on the spot. And while some familiarity with the blaxploitaton genre and 70s pop culture in general might help you enjoy Black Dynamite more, the adept comic timing helps keep the material fresh in general.

So I’ll just finish by saying that, story aside, Black Dynamite is no “jive turkey”, and that you won’t be disappointed catching it.

Ningen’s Rating: Story: 6.5/10, Authenticity: 10/10, Action: 7.5/10, Comedy: 11/10, Final Score: 8.5/10

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