The rap sheet for this one didn't exactly make for good reading: three points in particular stood out as more than a little ominous - no cinematic release, a two year gap between US and UK releases, and a comedy musical starring Samuel Jackson. Hardly inspiring. But Soul Men- released this week on Blu-ray and DVD - is a pleasant, if bittersweet surprise. Read on for my full review...
If any part of you has ever yearned to see Samuel L Jackson showing off his surprisingly considerable dancing skills as a backing singer to John Legend, this is the film for you. Not a huge demographic, granted, but once witnessed, I'd suggest the number of people who never knew they'd enjoy such a thing as much will be proclaiming it positively mesmerising.
Jackson plays Louis Hinds partner to Bernie Mac's Floyd Henderson, backup singers in a moderately successful '60s R&B trio who enjoyed modest fame alongside frontman Marcus Hooks (John Legend), who went on to leave the group and become massively successful while they floundered and ultimately split. The couple then split acrimoniously and fade into obscurity, Hinds to crime and then dead-end jobs and Henderson to a retirement community where he goes slowly stir crazy. The group are offered the chance of an ideal comeback opportunity when Marcus dies and VH1 requests his and Louis' involvement in a tribute show. The film then plays out as a Blues Brothers style road-trip to redemption and another shot at fame.
With Due Date announcing a reignited interest in the odd couple buddy road trip, Soul Men probably couldn't debut at a better time in the UK and key to every buddy road trip movie is the chemistry between the leads, which this film has in spades. You really get the sense that Mac and Jackson enjoyed their time working together, and both do well to make the material sparkle more than it might have in other's hands.
Arguably the highest praise I can give to Soul Men comes in response to Samuel L Jackson's performance. For the past few years Mr. Jackson has gone somewhat wayward with his talent, joining the Al Pacino school for acting that dictates the only method necessary is to shout as loudly as possible at other characters (see especially two of his other 2008 films Lakeview Terrace and The Spirit). So, to see him play a volatile character without resorting to that reductive technique too much is a fine breath of fresh air.
Alongside him, Bernie Mac is excellent, offering hundreds of ways to say "motherfucker"- which itself, is always going to enrich any film- but uttered by Mac, and echoed by Jackson, the experience is hilarious. But his performance is far better than that, he is likeable and witty despite his tendency to that particularly juicy expletive
Although I did enjoy the film (and was hugely surprised to do so, given its lack of UK promotion), I have to concede that there was a lot more potential than was actually realised. The film certainly does get by on novelty, but by diluting what is a strong idea and mostly great execution with occasionally bitter-tasting childish moments of gross-out humour (like Bernie Mac's day-after Viagra hard-on) looks like a very poor decision, and could well have cost the film a wider audience. It also spoils the integrity of the film's attempt to genuinely channel the spirit of the 60s and 70s when soul was king, which is more than obvious in the opening sequence that includes an excellent cameo by John Legend.
The long and short of it is, Soul Men deserves your attention, and while it could have been a lot better with a little more finesse and directorial discipline, it is one of those films that it is very easy to feel genuine affection for. It is also one of Bernie Mac's best performances, and thus stands as a fitting tribute to the man after his sad and untimely death just after finishing the film.
Again, surprisingly impressive. Detail, especially in the close-up shots is very impressive and contributes to a very good-looking visual experience; nothing appears obviously tinkered with, and there is a decent level of grain. The black levels are also very solid throughout and colours are impressively vibrant with fleshtones pleasingly natural. The sound quality is just as impressive, with dialogue crisp and clean (even despite Bernie Mac's tendency to mumble disgruntledly under his breath when wronged), and the musical numbers sounding perfect and produced to a very high level.
A good selection, including well conceived and presented tributes to Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes, the two huge talents who were to sadly die not long after the film rapped, and a very welcome featurette showing footage of Mac warming up the crowd for the audience packed finale of the movie and showing exactly why his talent will be so missed.
Feature Commentary by Director Malcolm D. Lee and Writers Matt Stone and Rob Ramsey. The Soul Men: Bernie Mac & Samuel L. Jackson (9:30mins) The Cast of Soul Men (7:42mins) Director Malcolm D. Lee (2:50 mins) A Tribute to Bernie Mac (7:26 mins) A Tribute to Isaac Hayes (4:03 mins) Boogie Aint Nuttin: Behind-The-Scenes (2:31mins) Bernie Mac At The Apollo (4:17 mins) Theatrical Trailer (2:25mins) Soul Men was released on Blu-ray this week.