Afros and Kung-Fu

Vanityfair.com

Nearly 10 years after Louis C.K.’s surrealist masterpiece Pootie-Tang, a good 20 after Hollywood Shuffle and I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, blaxploitation somehow remains the genre that keeps on giving. Those ‘fros, those flares, that dated street slang—they still get Pavlovian laughs from audiences born well into the Reagan era. While this may seem odd for genre that made parody more or less redundant, some undeniable comic chi yet lives in that culture’s heart—released with mere utterance of the incantatory phrase, jive turkey. Such is the energy that drives director Scott Sanders’s Black Dynamite, which shoots this barrel’s remaining fish with a chrome-plated .44 mag.

The “plot” is two parts Three the Hard Way, one part Dolemite, with shots of Superfly and Shaft. Roused to avenge his brother’s murder, Black Dynamite—Vietnam vet/kung-fu master/private-dick-who’s-a-sex-machine-to-all-the-chicks—declares war on the ghetto underworld, cutting a path of nunchuck destruction through the pool hall and the barbershop as he unravels a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top. (Spoiler alert: it involves the Man.)

As reference-based comedy increasingly seems written by software, neither this subject nor storyline augurs hilarity. But Black Dynamite brings its share, partially through its makers’ film-nerd mastery of genre conventions and vibe, partially through the physical grace and granite deadpan of star/co-writer Michael Jai White—who is to avenging-ghetto-studs what Leslie Nielsen was to square-jawed-white-detectives.

We meet Dynamite in flagrante, his presence announced by a close-up on three chicks of various ethnicities writhing, side-by-side, in simultaneous thrall to his Olympian (and apparently three-pronged) studliness. Rising from his work, the muscled, ‘froed, and mustachioed Dynamite shushes his bedmates’ accolades. “You gonna wake up the rest of the bitches” he says, the camera pulling back to reveal a female Raft of Medusa on his bed.

Dynamite’s Bunyonesque virility soon transfers to the dojang, where—in a red headband and obi—he breezily defeats five Chinese opponents in a tightly choreographed fight scene that reveals White’s Echt-blacksploitation pedigree. Like Bruce Lee’s soul brother Jim Kelly, White is an actual martial artist, with black belts in six karate styles and over 26 titles. This mastery, along with his two-decade career playing action heavies from the title hero of Spawn to Dark Knight mob boss Gambol to the dreaded Mike Tyson (in a 1995 TV biopic) gives this performance a rare electricity. It’s just funnier when a legitimate badass goes goofball.

After a Tarantinoesque, grindhouse opener—a ghetto-cinema malt-liquor ad, in grainy B-movie fim stock—Black Dynamite establishes its bona fides with split-screens, quaking zooms, and composer Adrian Younge’s able knock-offs of Curtis Mayfield and Bobby Womack, including several over-literal R&B recitatives that nod to the Three the Hard Way soundtrack (whose over-literal Impressions song lyrics tended to blow plot points 30 minutes in advance). But the tone eventually shifts to the broader surrealism of Airplane!, mixing meta-filmic gags like visible boom mikes and flubbed line-readings with Monty Python flights of verbal and logistical fancy that veer into total crudeness when necessary.

When Black Dynamite bursts into a lair of thugs demanding to know who’s in charge, a screenplay-jargon-challenged kingpin answers, “Sarcastically, I’m in charge.” When one of Dynamite’s punches accidentally connects in a fight scene, his opponent yells “Ow!”—then gets replaced in a split-second by an identically dressed stand-in. And when Vietnam vet Dynamite pauses for an obligatory flashback to the Shit, he ruefully dwells on the unintelligible last words of a mortally wounded child. “I don’t need to speak Chinese to know what that question meant,” he says, with a pause. “‘Why, Black Dynamite. Why?’”

Depending on your generosity and/or degree of T.H.C. consumption, the film either touches genius or goes completely off the rails by Act Three, when Dynamite leads a series of commando raids: one on a warehouse full of specially engineered malt liquor whose devastating effects on black studliness prompts a line soon to resound through our nation’s dorm rooms (“You diabolical, dick-shrinking motherfuckers!”); the other an Enter the Dragon–style assault on Kung Fu Island, where Dynamite confronts his wispy-bearded, Pai Mei-like nemesis, Dr. Wu, whose role in the multinational conspiracy leads Dynamite to a lengthy oratorical flourish that curses diabolical “kung-fu treachery” (a phrase I found myself repeating with delight hours later).

As a parody, the film hits targets well outside blaxploitation, including the enduring action-film cliche wherein a hero we’ve seen overpower several men at once somehow finds himself evenly matched in a climactic fistfight with the older, smaller, not-terribly-fit-looking puppet master of the whole cabal. That this particular puppet master happens to be Richard Nixon—inspiration for the timeless James Brown title “Funky President (People, It’s Bad)”—ends this film on a surprisingly uplifting note, prompting grateful consideration of that bleaker time, some 35 years back, before we painted the White House black.