USA 2002 : Malcolm D LEE : 85 mins
Undercover Brother sounds promising enough on paper – a black Austin Powers spoofing 70s blaxploitation thrillers rather than 60s spy romps – and the trailer suggests we’re in for a zippy, nippy, action-packed treat with plenty of laughs along the way. Unfortunately, that trailer turns out to be a compilation of all the good stuff in the film itself, cutting out the countless jokes that fall flat on their face or simply don’t make any sense beyond US national/cultural boundaries.
Undercover Brother (Eddie Griffin) cuts a defiantly anachronistic figure in modern-day LA, with his Shaft era clothes and prodigious Afro. He’s recruited by The Brotherhood – or rather The B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., a (literally) underground organisation waging permanent war against the reactionary forces of The Man (Robert Trumbull), a character so shadowy that his face is never seen. The Man’s evil plot involves brainwashing prominent African-American politician General Boutwell (Billy Dee Williams) into an inoffensive caricature of subservience, aided by henchman Mr Father (Chris Kattan), and White She Devil (Denise Richards), a sex-bomb deployed to seduce Undercover Brother from the path of righteousness. Among the good guys are the sassy Sistah Girl (Aunjanue Ellis), Conspiracy Brother (Dave Chappelle), The Chief (Chi McBride) and the very white-bread Lance (Neil Patrick Harris) – the latter employed as part of The Brotherhood’s ‘affirmative action’ programme.
The ingredients are in place for high-octane, satirical shenanigans – but the recipe never quite comes together. The problem is very basuc: for a comedy, there just aren’t enough decent laughs. The cast tries very hard – in the case of the ever-tedious Kattan, way too hard – but they’re just not given enough firepower by Michael McCullers and John Ridley’s script (based on a website cartoon series by Ridley). Director Lee’s contributions are workmanlike at best, meanwhile, making the film seem much longer than 85 minutes. Best value is provided by Chappelle as the magnificently paranoid Conspiracy Brother – though an explicitly comic character, he’s only a very mildly exaggerated version of 8 Mile‘s even more laughable DJ Iz. Indeed, unlike the Eminem fiasco, Undercover Brother‘s take on contemporary US race-relations is at least supposed to be a daft joke.
1st April, 2003
(seen 23rd January, Warner Village, Ellesmere Port)
by Neil Young