Reference or homage pieces seem to be popping up all over the place these days - ever since Quentin Tarantino made it his business to reinvigorate interest in the dying art of the 'sploitation film, culminating in the strange case of the Grindhouse project, copy-cats and even those with good-intentions have tried to get a bit of that particular dollar.
Sadly, most of the offerings have been piss-poor, with the majority looking at sexploitation as their reference point, and shoe-horning their "homage" in to more modern surroundings (think of Lesbian Vampire Killers for instance). Recent atrocities like Bitch Slap haven't exactly offered a reasonable case for a fully-fledged resurgence in interest to rival the apparent fascination these days with Monster B-Movies, and I can't help but think of the whole retrospective movement as something of a fad that will pass as quickly as it emerged.
One genre of movies that hasn't really been given the rehashing treatment, aside from Tarantino's frequent references, the odd single film (Undercover Brother for instance) and the bizarro nod of the schlock British gangster films of the late 90s and beyond (think about it, it oddly works), is the Blaxploitation movement that was borne out of the 1970s. Only the 1990s resurgence lead by Spike Lee looks anything like the genre, though it cannot truly be called Blaxploitation with similar themes of urban life and criminal lifestyles being somewhat differently portrayed to the occassionally aspirational feel of the 70s films (particularly Super Fly).
Into this context comes Black Dynamite, Scott Sanders' Blaxploitation homage that hits British screens this Friday, which has been called everything from a genre-pastiche in the form of Austin Powers to a straight-up spoof. But in reality, the film is far more clever than that; combining elements of both with some very nuanced, filmic comic moments that feel like they have been created specifically for the kinds of people who'd notice the comedy intertwined in incredibly authentic recreated cinematic styles. Genre nerds in other words. At the crux of it, this film is best viewed by discriminating fans of the Blaxploitation genre, because at times the passion with which it seeks generic authenticity will be claustrophobic to those who do not know the original movement.
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The film charts the personal journey of Black Dynamite (Michael Jai White), a swaggering, incredibly muscled and moustachioed baadaass, the likes of which double aas where created for, as he seeks to find the murderer of his brother and dole out his own particular brand of justice (largely based on his kung-fu and nunchucks skills). On the way he also wrestles with his obligations to the law, the obligatory difficult relationship with The Man, and uncovers a sinister plot to further persecute the black community (in an incredibly inventive manner) which leads to one of the oddest cinematic pay-offs I have ever seen, involving the on-screen realisation of the Blaxploitation genre's dream of overcoming The Man (in the form of a karate-kicking Richard Nixon).
The best parts of the comedy are the warm spoofs of the unpolished production values on show in the original films of the genre- mic booms dipping into view, unreadable cue-cards causing problems and background characters accidentally reading their stage-directions. There isn't the broad slapstick of an Airplane (which makes the recurrent comparisons somewhat difficult to accept) because Black Dynamite is definitely a more affectionate homage to the original sub-genre than a broader spoofy comedy. The dialogue is occasionally hilarious, and there is much less of the silliness of an Epic Movie or Superhero Movie, which is a damn good move, as Black Dynamite could well have found itself being accused of joining that too-long, horrible list of movie Movies. And no film deserves that.
But, by God, Black Dynamite is one of the most elegant homages I have ever come across: the production values are incredibly authentic, with incredibly diligent attention going into even the most minute of details, from excellent costumes to camera angles that evocatively recapture the original visual aesthetic associated with the classics of the sub-genre. But did I actually enjoy it?
Well, in all honesty, even despite the film's fanbase, and the clamour that arose following its original Sundance appearance, I really can't see Black Dynamite having a massively broad appeal to general audiences, especially in the European markets that it will enter this week. The simple fact is that the whole thing is rather incestuous- there is little in terms of inclusive comedy, despite the occasional hearty laughs that come from non-Blaxploitation reference points. I was left with too much of a feeling that the film was aimed squarely at the sort of film buffs who would giggle self-congratulatory giggles when they recognised the in-joke, and despite again despite the claims that the film offers enough for frat-house fans, I just don't see it. The geek in me was positively bristling with excitement for most of the film, but I didn't enjoy it as a simple movie-watching experience on any other level as much as I'd have liked to.
The biggest question the film poses - and it's one that I'm still trying to fathom myself- is whether such intricate authenticity, interspersed with the occasional winning comic moment mean the same as entertainment: I can certainly recognise that there are a lot of good jokes within the film (especially the ones that use the attention to details as a foundation), but if pressed I would struggle to regurgitate the plot in anything but very broad terms. I think at some point the usually arresting experience of watching a film for entertainment is lost in the painstaking attention to authenticity, and I didn't get the usual spark I do with a film I really enjoy. I definitely admire the skill involved, and the performances on show, but there wasn't enough depth beyond the homage to really grip me.
I can see myself enjoying it a lot more on further viewings, which I plan- but I fear that my experience will be repeated if I follow the same track and end up caught up in the film buff frame of mind, and miss the simple enjoyment of the film itself. Hence my belief that it won't make an awful lot of money when it does hit British and European screens this week.
Finally, a note on the soundtrack, which is painstakingly created to encapsulate everything from the Blaxploitation era in 15 tracks of stripped down authentic funk. There may not be the immediate catchy classics of the Jackie Brown OST, but you have to bear in mind that the tracks were lovingly made by multi-instrumentalist Adrian Younge, who amazingly plays every instrument from the electric piano to the cello and drums himself. Younge maintains that stunning authenticity by using the instruments of the period including the evocatively recognisable vibraphone, and by channelling the period spirit through his lyrics. If I were a gambling man, I'd also bet that the soundtrack was recorded using period equipment, given the authentic tonal quality that matches the film's own authentic visual manifesto. Even more exceptionally, this soundtrack is Younge's début: if Black Dynamite is only allowed to be remembered for one thing, it should definitely be for the unearthing of this talent.