The 70s exploitation-film spoof Black Dynamite sounds like a fun idea on paper, and it starts to look like a can’t-miss proposition when you see the theatrical trailer, which showcases the technical qualities of this loving pastiche. Director Scott Sanders certainly gets the look right, thanks partly to no-frills era-aware photography by DP Shawn Maurer and partly to some digital tweaking that brings the colors in line with that ruddy aesthetic specific to some film prints of the period, and that’s crucial to the joke. As the titular bad-ass, a former CIA agent with a reinstated license to kill out to avenge the death of his brother, Michael Jai White combines a deadpan-comic screen presence with enough martial artistry to make a fight scenes work on a more visceral level than pure parody. But something about the execution is flat.
Black Dynamite’s investigation leads him up the social ladder and into the corridors of power. An aggressively marketed brand of malt liquor — in a brief prologue, B.D. himself is seen shilling for the product — is uncovered as the mechanism by which The Man hopes to subvert and break the will of the radical black community. There’s a great scene where Black Dynamite and his cohorts raid a warehouse, expecting to find a cache of drugs but instead standing around befuddled at the presence of crates upon crates upon crates of ostensibly harmless malt liquor. Lest you think the film is becoming the least bit preachy about how alcohol has ravaged poor communities, the scene is ultimately revealed as the set-up for a dick joke. Fair enough, but I haven’t really laughed at prosthetic genitals since I saw that Saturday night sneak of There’s Something About Mary in West Nyack. (Insert Antichrist joke here.)
When you’re considering a film as essentially silly as this one in order to declare it funny or unfunny enough to justify an investment of time and money, it’s hard to get past issues of personal taste. Even more than usual, your mileage may well vary, and I’ve got to say I chuckled a few times and was kind of tickled to see where this ride ended up. (SPOILER: in the Nixon White House.) It’s successful as homage, almost by definition. But it doesn’t have much of a life of its own.
I got a huge kick out of Grindhouse because Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino were so obviously engaged with the medium. They were making their own “grindhouse” movies because they thought the source material was fucking awesome and channeling that era was a kind of wish fulfillment for them. Tarantino’s girl-power revenge fantasy was pretty sweet, but the most successful gag in the whole of Grindhouse was Rodriguez’s hilarious trailer for the fake film Machete, which had the huevos to imagine an alternate reality where Mexican revenge porn was a grindhouse staple.
Even at its best Black Dynamite lacks that kind of brio, and what finally turned me off was the sense that the filmmakers were occasionally condescending toward their source material, taking pot shots at a lack of sophistication they perceived in the original films. For instance, Sanders directs his cast, in some scenes, to engage in deliberately bad acting. In another shot, a boom mic dangles into frame next to White’s head. (This really bugged me, especially because visible boom mics are almost always the fault of a lazy projectionist or an incorrectly framed video transfer rather than the filmmakers. And I know that repeatedly voicing this strongly held conviction makes me a colossal nerd.)
I’m sure Sanders and company meant these tweaks affectionately — video versions of Dolemite are well-known for their visible booms — but they were real vibe-busters for me. Ah, well. I’ll always have my DVDs of Coffy and The Mack to curl up with.