"Undercover Brother" has such a cheerfully zingy energy that you keep rooting for it even when its jokes turn flatter than a jump shot at a YMCA pickup game. Sending up the blaxploitation films of the 1970s would seem an easy and pointless exercise, but this is a spoof comedy that, for once, has an actual point of view.
The movie posits that African-American self-expression reached its pinnacle in the days when Jesse Jackson was sporting an afro and Richard Roundtree and Pam Grier were kicking some serious on-screen butt. But then, the smoky-voiced narrator intones, disaster struck in the form of Urkel, the unbearably nerdy kid from TV's "Family Matters," and ultimately, the horrific sight of Dennis Rodman in a wedding dress.
Who's to blame for this besmirching of black culture? Why, The Man, of course. This all-purpose blaxploitation villain has been leading a conspiracy "to turn back the clock on race relations," and it's up to the secret B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. to fight for "Truth, Justice and the Afro-American Way."
Eddie Griffin, whose movie roles have tended toward the pesky and annoying, plays Undercover Brother, a freelance, kung-fu-happy do-gooder who can spin out his '70s Cadillac convertible without spilling his pop and looks like he just stepped out of a Funkadelic concert, foot-tall afro and all. Sistah Girl (Aunjanue Ellis), the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D.'s top operative, dismisses him as "a 'Soul Train' reject with a Robin Hood complex."
But the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. needs Undercover Brother to counteract The Man's latest nefarious plan. Gen. Boutwell (Billy Dee Williams) is a Colin Powell-type figure about to announce his candidacy for president - that is, until Mr. Feather (Chris Kattan), The Man's main man, gets to him.
The general's news conference turns out to be an announcement that he's launching a chain of fried chicken restaurants, much to the horror of the hopeful B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. gang. Later we learn that if you order an eight-piece "Nappy Meal" from General's Fried Chicken, you get a free 32 oz. malt liquor - a tweaking of Williams' own endorsement past.
With a brainwashing scheme apparently in effect, Undercover Brother is brought into the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., led by the requisitely explosive The Chief (Chi McBride), who has a picture of Danny Glover on his wall and dutifully complains, "I'm getting too old for this (stuff)."
Smart Brother (Gary Anthony Williams) - the characters' generic names are a kind of running joke - is a bespectacled, roly-poly guy who dutifully pecks away at his computer keyboards, and Conspiracy Brother (comedian Dave Chappelle) sees anti-black conspiracies in everything from the invention of computers - for which he credits George Washington Carver-to the establishment of the NBA three-point shot. Though even he won't bite on the question of O.J. Simpson's guilt.
On the villain side, White She-Devil (Denise Richards), a shapely white woman who serves as "black man's Kryptonite," is unleashed to distract Undercover Brother from his mission by turning him into a mayonnaise-loving yuppie. At one point she and a couple of white henchmen brawl with Sistah Girl and Undercover Brother until Undercover Brother and the henchmen stop, pull up a few chairs, pop open some drinks and appreciate the spectacle of two women catfighting.
Directing a screenplay by John Ridley ("Three Kings") and Michael McCullers (the second and upcoming third "Austin Powers"), Malcolm D. Lee ("The Best Man") keeps the tone light while avoiding the kind of stridency favored by cousin Spike Lee. No one is allowed to take himself too seriously, and everyone gets ribbed affectionately as the movie makes occasional astute observations about the intermingling of black and white culture.
Even the action sequences are self-effacing; Lee stages his big chase on puttering golf carts. He also throws in freeze-frames, split screens and other blaxploitation-era techniques without overdoing the homage.
Griffin's title character is less of an attention magnet than Austin Powers, meaning that other actors actually are allowed to be funny. Still, Griffin has plenty of moments, such as imitating a preppie white guy imitating Stevie Wonder during a karaoke duet of "Ebony and Ivory."
Griffin brings an appealing spirit to the role; he's just an upbeat, retro crime-fighter with a taste for the ladies. Undercover Brother's macho poses are undercut by his small build and the fact that Sistah Girl can whup him.
Ellis lends Sistah Girl some spunk without ever letting her become window dressing. The same can't be said about Richards, who's about as convincing as a comedic femme fatal as she was as a nuclear physicist opposite James Bond in "The World Is Not Enough." Such a character's sexiness lies, at least somewhat, in her cunning eyes, and Richards' just seem unfocused.
In general the white folk don't represent. Neil Patrick Harris' Lance, the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D.'s white affirmative-action hire, is too stereotypically wimpy and square to be enjoyed.
Kattan earns some laughs as a white man trying to squelch the black man inside - his body betrays him when he hears a funky beat - but he needs to shake that "Saturday Night Live" habit of feeling the need to mug every time he's on screen.
Even with a running time of less than 90 minutes, the movie loses steam toward the end as the jokes and music selections get more obvious; the appearance of "Play That Funky Music" invariably indicates a well running dry. No one is going to mistake "Undercover Brother" for high-end cinema.
Yet the movie does primarily what it sets out to do. It's breezily entertaining and culturally specific without resorting to gross-out jokes or cruelty. As Undercover Brother himself would say, "Solid!"
Directed by Malcolm D. Lee; written by John Ridley, Michael McCullers; photographed by Tom Priestley; edited by William Kerr; production designed by William Elliott; music by Stanley Clarke; produced by Brian Grazer, Michael Jenkinson, Damon Lee. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday, May 31. Running time: 1:26. MPAA rating: PG-13 (language, sexual humor, drug content, campy violence).
Anton Jackson - Eddie Griffin
Mr. Feather - Chris Kattan
Penelope Snow - Denise Richards
Sistah Girl - Aunjanue Ellis
Conspiracy Brother - Dave Chappelle The Chief - Chi McBride
Mark Caro is the Chicago Tribune movie reporter.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times