Some big fun with big hair


May 31, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Undercover Brother, an Internet cartoon series, comes to the big screen as bright live-action entertainment - a satiric salute to blaxploitation movies that turns into an engaging melting-pot comedy, albeit one filled with "Afro Slick" and hot sauce, hold the mayo.

It has a premise that never stops percolating. Ever since the black pop heyday of the 1970s, a villain called The Man - yes, The Man - has plotted to expunge blacks from American culture. An intrepid individualist known as Undercover Brother (Eddie Griffin) has soldiered on as if Shaft and Slaughter were still walking the walk and talking the talk: Like them, he says it loud, he's black and proud.

Cruising in his vintage Cadillac DeVille while downing orange-soda Big Gulps from his in-car dispenser, Undercover Brother - UB for short - conducts one-man operations against institutions of oppression, like banks foreclosing on the mortgages of low-income homeowners.

Early in the film, he inadvertently upsets the plans of the secret agency known as the Brotherhood, devoted to "Truth, Justice and the Afro American Way since 1972." Betting that a maverick like UB can become a team player, the Chief (Chi McBride) invites him to join the ranks of Sistah Girl (Aunjanue Ellis), Smart Brother (Gary Anthony Williams) and Conspiracy Brother (Dave Chappelle). Together, they take on The Man and his top operative, Mr. Feather (Chris Kattan), who now possesses a mind-control drug capable of turning a Colin Powell lookalike, General Boutwell (Billy Dee Williams), from a presidential candidate to the founder of the General's Fried Chicken franchise.

Both messier and funnier than any one-track parody, the script for Undercover Brother - written by original Web site author John Ridley (the novelist-screenwriter who co-wrote Three Kings) and Michael McCullers (Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me) - juggles a dozen different types of jokes. They include: Dead-on topical burlesques, such as when a TV anchor airhead says of General Boutwell, "He's so well-spoken"; smart, malicious asides, including the depiction of Urkel from Family Matters as the nerdy nadir of black TV-land; and clever comic-book buffoonery, at its peak when UB turns his pronged Afro combs into lethal weapons.

Above all, three strategies pay off with genial hilarity.

First is a split-the-difference approach to the racial myths of American streets and living rooms. Members of the Brotherhood believe the NBA instituted the three-point shot to give white ballplayers better game; they also believe that the honchos of the entertainment industry have conspired to keep the Oscar from the hands of Spike Lee. But not even they believe O.J. is innocent.

Second is the recognition that America wasn't meant for any kind of segregation, whether it grows from the racism of the right or the multiculturalism of the left. Affirmative action demands that the Chief must employ a clueless white man named Lance (Doogie Howser himself, Neil Patrick Harris) - and after Roots opens Lance's eyes, the Chief is glad he did.

Third is what's crucial for a high-and-low comedy like this one: hormonal drives trump political directives every time. When UB shows off his mastery of disguise and goes to work as a buppie marketing consultant for The Man, Mr. Feather unleashes "black Kryptonite" - the statuesque Penelope Snow (Denise Richards), who seduces with overwhelming sweetness until Sistah Girl exposes her as the dreaded White She Devil. No matter how high and mighty the Brotherhood get over UB sleeping with a Caucasian, mayo-loving beauty, except for Sistah Girl, they're all dying to know how she was.

What's good for the movie is that Richards is able to project her allure and poke fun at it simultaneously. The director, Malcolm D. Lee, does almost too skillful a job of sending up blaxploitation filmmaking, in which victims thrown from windows are obviously stunt men jumping, and cars crash and pipes explode as if predestined. Lee fails to develop a reverse style. Sometimes he can't sustain a juicy gag beyond the setup: a face-off between Mr. Feather and the one and only James Brown nearly ends before it starts.

But Lee as well as the writers must be responsible for recognizing that the early-to-mid-1970s was a great era for all pop culture, white or black: The close-ups of a woman's lips next to a mike recall Walter Hill's The Warriors, and when Sistah Girl and White She Devil team up against thugs, they're both an ebony and ivory version of Cleopatra Jones and Bambi and Thumper from Diamonds Are Forever.

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