After two years of wandering in the wilderness of the summer movie season, this is shaping up as a really strong year for major movie studios. Except for that Star Wars monstrosity (has George Lucas ever heard real people talk, or does he just sit up at Skywalker Ranch looking at anime porn all day?), 2002’s biggest films have mostly been clever, entertaining, even literate permutations of well-worn genres. In just the last two months, we’ve seen Panic Room, Spider-Man, Insomnia, Changing Lanes and About a Boy—more really good films than we got in any six-month span since the turn of the century.
Now there’s Undercover Brother, a rapier-sharp satire of blaxploitation films, spy movies in general, and our nation’s vast, complicated, oftentimes silly spectrum of race relations. It’s also a broad comedy with a serious pedigree—it was written by novelist John Ridley, who based it on his own acclaimed Internet cartoon series, and directed by Malcolm D. Lee, Spike’s cousin.
With nearly equal parts of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Austin Powers and Shaft, the film revels in a relentless, high-intensity series of light gags that pull us under its bell-bottomed, heavily spangled spell. Though not all of the jokes work, another one usually arrives in time to keep us laughing—and from the afros to the leopard-skin outfits, there’s always a head-shaking new visual on screen to keep us distracted.
Eddie Griffin, a decent comedian who’s been in mostly stupid movies, is the ephemeral title character. Undercover Brother drives a gold Cadillac convertible and dresses to the nines while fighting injustice. He’s always on the lookout for the plots of The Man, who has concocted a fiendish new plan to control everybody’s minds.
General Boutwell (Billy Dee Williams)—a nice black politician who’s praised in newscasts as being “so well-spoken!”—is planning to announce his presidential candidacy before a visit from Mr. Feather (Chris Kattan, funny on film for the first time), an emissary of The Man. After that, Boutwell announces plans to open a chain of fried-chicken restaurants—and there’s an uproar at B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., the top-secret organization tracking The Man’s every move. The Chief (Chi McBride) calls on Undercover Brother to save the day.
As an icon, Undercover Brother is no Pootie Tang, but he has a better movie. Pootie, the priceless character from sketches on the late great Chris Rock Show, is less of a person than a brilliant idea, as his centerless movie showed last year. Undercover Brother is also a great idea, but he’s also a fully franchisable action hero.
Like Mike Myers and Austin Powers director Jay Roach, Ridley and Lee realized their concept depended on a steady stream of humor to keep the audience’s attention away from the film’s shortcomings, so there are jokes around every acre of Griffin’s afro. Many of the best lines go to Conspiracy Brother (Dave Chappelle), who’s infuriated by the white man’s poaching of black culture. But even Conspiracy Brother digs White She Devil (Denise Richards), whose rivalry with Sistah Girl (Aunjanue Ellis) climaxes in a hilariously over-the-top catfight.
The film’s greatest asset is the raw energy that drove blaxploitation films, which made up for spotty production values and some godawful writing with pure molten charisma. Lee, who shows a surprisingly deft comedic touch, is helped along by a fantastic sound track of dance and disco beats, as well as Griffin’s relentless energy.
Chris Tucker might have been a better choice for this role (though Tucker has been attached to a similar film, Double-O Soul), but it’s hard to fault a film that’s so perceptive on so many levels, while still providing enough belly laughs to keep popcorn-movie fans in their seats. Though Undercover Brother is rooted in us-against-them racial humor, he’s a hero for anybody who just won’t let The Man keep them down.