It may not soar consistently enough to be considered the “Airplane!” of blaxploitation pics — “I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka!” (1988) remains the top contender for that label — but “Undercover Brother” is a frequently inspired hit-and-miss burlesque that definitely hits more than it misses. Remaining true to its roots as an Internet cartoon series by John Ridley, who co-wrote the scattershot script with Michael McCullers, pic is at once keenly accurate and gleefully affectionate in its lampooning of cliches, archetypes and even musical cues from macho-man melodramas aimed at black audiences in the 1970s. With favorable reviews and upbeat word of mouth, “Brother” could post solid B.O. numbers as a mid-range crossover hit, then really bring home the bacon as a hot homevid item.
Splendiferously funky in gold leather garb, pork chop sideburns and an Afro the size of a low-lying cumulus cloud, Undercover Brother (Eddie Griffin) is a walking, talking and kung-fu fightin’ anachronism, still keeping it real in the 21st century ‘hood in the manner of a ’70s blaxploitation icon. Just how cool is this dude? He can skid and spin his ’72 Cadillac convertible in vertiginous circles for blocks on end without ever spilling his Big Gulp soft drink. This cat is a bad mutha… Well, you get the idea.
Undercover Brother is so baaaad that he’s recruited by The B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., a super-secret organization dedicated to preserving and nurturing the African-American way of life. Trouble is black culture,in decline since its ’70s heyday, has been deteriorating precipitously since the introduction of Urkel on “Family Matters” and the first appearance of Dennis Rodman in a wedding dress.
Meanwhile, an even more super-secretive organization run by The Man (a shadow-obscured Robert Trumbull) wants to keep Caucasians safe from all black-culture influences — and undermine African-Americans as a race — by transforming black leaders like General Boutwell (Billy Dee Williams in Colin Powell-style mufti) into easily malleable puppets.
To fight the good fight against the minions of The Man, Undercover Brother requires help from crack B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D agents: sexy and savvy Sistah Girl (Aunjanue Ellis), electronics whiz Smart Brother (Gary Anthony Williams), mega-paranoid Conspiracy Brother (Dave Chappelle) — and Lance (Neil Patrick Harris), a token white guy, whose employment is explained by The Chief (Chi McBride) as the result of “affirmative action.”
Chris Kattan whips himself into paroxysms of spirited silliness as The Man’s second-in-command, Mr. Feather. Feather uses the alluringly sensuous White She Devil (Denise Richards in top self-satirical form) to lure Undercover Brother into briefly accepting mayonnaise, J. Crew clothing and other Caucasian accoutrements. Ultimately, however, Undercover Brother comes to his senses, White She Devil switches sides, and a climactic battle for truth, justice and the African-American way of life erupts.
Under the brisk direction of Malcolm D. Lee (“The Best Man”), Griffin does his finest bigscreen work to date, showing a fine flair for physical comedy and a deft touch for mock-serious swagger while providing a human dimension for a character that, essentially, is a live-action cartoon.
Among the supporting players, Chappelle and Kattan steal scene after scene with their amusingly overstated antics — it’s difficult to see how anyone could underplay, or why anyone would want to, in their roles — but Ellis manages to make a wining impression with a slightly more subdued performance.
Production designer William Elliott, costumer Danielle Hollowell and lenser Tom Priestley merit kudos for their spot-on evocations of ’70s fashion and filmmaking styles. (Note the deliberately cheesy-looking explosions, the graphic design of the opening credits — and, of course, those ultra-high platform shoes.) The flashy technique goes a long way toward disguising the relatively flimsiness of the substance. Despite some exceptionally funny set pieces, patches of pic feel padded and underwritten. Indeed, two self-contained bits during the closing credits indicate a last-minute desperation to stretch “Undercover Brother” to feature length.
Not surprisingly, pic’s craftier allusions and sight gags will play best with auds who vividly recall the blaxploitation “classics.” But, much more of the funny stuff is easily accessible to uninitiated. Besides, the “Austin Powers” comedies play fast and loose with conventions of an even older and more short-lived genre, ’60s spy spoofs, and that certainly hasn’t dampened their cross-generational appeal.
In fact, co-scripter McCullers had a hand in the original “Austin Powers” and its upcoming “Goldmember” sequel. The writer may be carving a niche for himself.