Robert Townsend is working an agenda in his new film, "The Meteor Man," which he directed, wrote and stars in. It's about what happens when the decent, shy schoolteacher Jefferson Reed gets hit by a meteor and acquires the superpowers that enable him to combat the gang that is terrorizing his neighborhood. It's a fantasy intended to give inner-city black kids a superhero with real meaning in their lives.
The film (rated PG for scenes showing "children caught up in the perils of the urban environment") is also clearly meant to provide an alternative to the R-rated urban violence of films like "Boyz N the Hood" and "Menace II Society." There's violence in "The Meteor Man" (citywide) but it's mostly a cheesier version of the whammo punch-outs in the "Superman" and "Batman" series. (Townsend may not realize that inner-city kids already use films like "Batman" for the same save-the-neighborhood fantasy function as "The Meteor Man.")
Despite its high-flown intentions, most of "The Meteor Man" comes across like a fairly clunky sitcom inflated with sequences of righteous do-goodism. The righteousness has its reactionary side; it implies that movies depicting graphic inner-city violence are by definition exploitative and destructive.
Townsend plays his role with a serious undertone throughout--he's a comic on a mission. The neighborhood community--which includes Jefferson's irate father (Robert Guillaume), who stands up to the gangs, his mother (Marla Gibbs), and a goofy, weak-willed homebody (James Earl Jones)--frets and agonizes about how to survive the incursions of the dread Golden Lords gang.
But Townsend is also excited by the visual possibilities of the Lords--their sleek jackets and gold-tinted hair and don't-mess-with-me glowers are so much more stylish than anything else in the movie that the anti-gang message is obscured. The Lords are the bad guys but kids in the audience are more likely to be captivated by their "look" than by the fuddy-duddy goodness of the Meteor Man in his clunky armored costume.
This isn't the first time in the movies that the bad guys have turned out to be more exciting than the good guys, but Townsend could have done better by himself if he worked some wit, some snap, into his acting. Did he think Jefferson's heroism would be undercut by a little humor? It would have made him more heroic.
A lot of funny people pop in and out of "The Meteor Man," not always to best advantage. Bill Cosby has a cameo as a homeless man who also encounters the magical meteor, but most of his role appears to have ended up on the cutting room floor. His presence in the film is largely ceremonial--he seems to be on-screen in order to endorse Townsend's agenda. Sinbad has a funny bit in a hospital and, as a battle-ax nurse, Lawanda Page is in great glowering form. Rap artist Big Daddy Kane (looking none the worse for wear from "Posse") turns up as one of the Lords, and so do Naughty by Nature, Biz Markie and Cypress Hill. Even Luther Vandross makes a (wordless) appearance, heading up a crime syndicate with Frank Gorshin.
Townsend may want "The Meteor Man" to inspire inner-city community action as the way to squelch gangs but the movie doesn't really send that message. What we're left with is the stark fact that, in this embattled neighborhood, it takes a superhero to clean up. (The Bloods-Crips truce is alluded to; they combine in the end to help defeat the Lords.) Townsend is plumping for community responsibility but his own superhero fantasies also come into play. He casts himself as the savior of the inner cities in "The Meteor Man." His humility is deafening.
'The Meteor Man'
Robert Townsend: Jefferson Reed
Marla Gibbs: Mrs. Reed
Eddie Griffin: Michael
Robert Guillaume: Mr. Reed
A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer presentation of a Tinsel Townsend production. Director Robert Townsend. Producer Loretha C. Jones. Screenplay by Robert Townsend. Cinematographer John A. Alonzo. Editor Adam Bernardi, Richard Candib, Andrew London, Pam Wise. Costumes Ruth Carter. Music Cliff Eidelman. Production design Toby Corbett. Art director Greg Papalia. Set designers William J. Newmon II and Stephanie J. Gordon. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.
MPAA-rated PG (for children caught up in perils of urban environment).