Dan Aykroyd and director John Landis take a bumpy trip down memory lane in “Blues Brothers 2000,” a sluggishly paced, fitfully funny followup to their 1980 musical comedy extravaganza. As the producers of “Texasville,” “The Two Jakes” and “The Evening Star” can testify, it’s always a risky business to make a sequel to any pic that’s more than a decade old, even with several members of the original cast. But given the continuing popularity of the original “Blues Brothers” in video and pay TV venues, this wildly uneven sequel might attract enough ticketbuyers to generate decent, though not spectacular, B.O. coin before finding greener pastures in ancillary markets.
Aykroyd, who co produced and (with Landis) co scripted, reprises his signature role as Elwood Blues, the monotone, stiff gaited R&B aficionado who comes fully alive only while performing onstage. New outing begins with Elwood’s release from prison after serving 18 years for causing all that spectacular damage in the first “Blues Brothers.” He’s devastated to learn that, during his incarceration, Jake Blues (John Belushi), his brother and collaborator, has passed away. And to make matters worse, Curtis (Cab Calloway), the orphanage custodian who served as surrogate father and musical mentor for the Blues brothers, has also died.
Undeterred by these tragedies, Elwood sets out to reassemble the Blues Brothers Band. Before he begins his journey down the comeback trail however, he visits Mother Mary Stigmata (Kathleen Freeman), the intimidating nun who operated the orphanage where the Blues brothers were raised. Mother Mary demands that Elwood serve as a mentor to Buster (J. Evan Bonifant), a troublesome 10 year old orphan. With Buster in tow, Elwood seeks a $500 car purchase loan from Cabel Chamberlain (Joe Morton), Curtis’ long lost illegitimate son, who becomes an unwilling benefactor when Buster pickpockets his wallet.
While working at a strip joint operated by a former Blues Brothers Band member, Elwood befriends Mighty Mack McTeer (John Goodman), a bartender who earns the right to replace Jake as Elwood’s song and dance partner. The two Blues Brothers, along with Buster, must take flight after they run afoul of Russian Mafia tough guys. Inevitably, this leads to another cross country chase, as Elwood and company reassemble the original band while speeding toward a gig in Louisiana. All the while, they are pursued by the Russian mobsters, an angry Cabel, the FBI and dozens of state and local police officers.
Predictably, much of pic plays like a smudged carbon of the original. Just about every character and plot complication from the first pic has some sort of equivalent here; again there’s a subplot involving a group of nasty right wing zealots, this time a radical militia group (led by “Saturday Night Live” regular Darrell Hammond).
Unfortunately, the anarchic exuberance that propelled the original is in disappointingly short supply. This is especially evident during the exposition heavy first half, when even the musical numbers lack spark and visual flair. Pic sputters to life during a vibrant production number — showcasing R&B vets Eddie Floyd and Wilson Pickett and newcomer Jonny Lang — that plays like a Frank Tashlin-inspired fantasy. But “BB2K” lumbers more often than it electrifies.
Perhaps mindful of criticism leveled at the first pic’s demolition derby excess, Landis keeps the car crash action to a minimum. Trouble is, while restraint may be a valuable commodity in some comedies, it’s hardly what audiences want or expect in a “Blues Brothers” adventure.
On the plus side, the film does feature two genuine show stoppers in its second half. The first, a rousing tent revival sequence, has James Brown and Sam Moore leading the Faith Chorale in a truly inspirational rendition of “John the Revelator.” Pic builds to a climactic battle of the bands in the crumbling enclave of a Louisiana voodoo priestess (Erykah Badu). The Louisiana Gator Boys Band — the Blues Brothers Band’s competition — is a superstar ensemble featuring, among others, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Bo Diddley, Dr. John, Travis Tritt, Steve Winwood, Clarence Clemmons and Isaac Hayes. After these greats get down with an extended version of “How Blue Can You Get,” most folks in the audience will dearly wish that the plot could be placed on hold for an hour or so to make room for multiple encores. For the most part, Aykroyd does the same ersatz R&B shtick he’s done for years in TV guest spots and live concerts. The pleasant surprise is, he’s still amusing while going through the familiar motions. Goodman wisely refrains from trying to ape John Belushi, but his thinly written role — basically, he serves as Aykroyd’s straight man — gives him little chance to cut loose. Still, he manages to belt out his songs with appropriate gusto.
Morton, heretofore best known for playing more sober-sided characters (“Terminator 2,” “Lone Star”), takes full advantage of his opportunities for slow burn comic rage and high octane song-and-dance. Young Bonifant is impressively nimble during the production numbers, though a trifle bland in his nonmusical scenes.
Notables in the large supporting cast include Nia Peeples as Cabel’s determined deputy and Steve Lawrence as the band’s slick agent. Aretha Franklin briefly reprises her “Blues Brothers” role as a band member’s disapproving wife. Better still, she gets to sing a new version of her classic “Respect.” It’s not as exciting as her performance of “Think” in the previous pic, but it’s fun nonetheless.
Filmed on location in Illinois and Toronto, “Blues Brothers 2000” appears neither lavishly self indulgent nor unduly budget strapped. Tech credits are adequate without being spectacular, indicating that, while this may have been a labor of love for Aykroyd, Landis and other parties involved, no one wanted to let things get wildly out of hand. Of course, it could be argued that getting wildly out of hand was precisely what “The Blues Brothers” was all about. The sequel offers more of the same, only less.