You know it’s been a weird year at the movies when funniest film of 2009 turns out to be a note-perfect, low-budget satire of an already obscure genre that went out of style with bellbottoms and platform soles. That’s the way Black Dynamite rolls, though, baby. He’s funky and fierce and he’s got an afro full of surprises. He’s an old kind of hero for a new generation, and, just like the trail of honeys he leaves in his wake, once you’ve go Black, you ain’t never goin’ back.
Michael Jai White stars as Black Dynamite, the baddest badass this side of Sweetback. He’s street-fightin’, pimp-slappin’, karate kickin’ wrecking ball, sent on a collision course with “the man” after his brother, Jimmy, is gunned down by a vicious mob boss. Black Dynamite learns that Jimmy – following in his older brother’s footsteps - was secretly working for the CIA. While Black Dynamite is done with the CIA and all their honkey jive, he can’t turn down their request to help take down the mobster responsible for Jimmy’s death, and is reinstated with a full license to kill. With the help of his fellow pimps, a gaggle of eager ho’s, and a fringe contingent of the Black Panthers, Black Dynamite finds that there’s more to Jimmy’s death than meets the eye, and soon uncovers a plot so nefarious, so downright nasty, that only one man could possibly be behind it. Get ready, brothas, ‘cause we goin’ on a boat ride….TO KUNG FU ISLAND!
I spent the better part of Black Dynamite curled up on the floor in the fetal position, holding in my guts and trying to catch my breath from laughing so hard. As a hardcore blaxploitation fanatic, watching Black Dynamite is akin to watching a master counterfeiter create the perfect Mona Lisa. The brainchild of White and written by White, Byron Minns, and director, Scott Sanders, Black Dynamite is a near-flawless recreation of 70’s-era grunginess, with period-accurate sets, vehicles, and costumes, a degraded visual aesthete (achieved through the use of a special, super unstable variety of 16mm film stock), and a faithfully recorded (using all analog gear for maximum funkadelicness) retro soundtrack that warbles and pops like an eight-track left out in the sun. If you were to show this film to anyone not already aware of its existence, there’s no doubt in my mind that they would think this was the genuine article. Sanders employs all sorts of techniques, from the utilization of hilariously inappropriate stock footage to jarring edits and poorly blocked shots (watch for the boom mic in several scenes, and pay especially close attention to White’s subtle-yet-hilarious reaction to it) to recapture the genre’s low-budget, gonzo style. It all looks and sounds like the real thing. Wooden acting, atrocious dialogue, terrible production values, and, yet, much like the best examples of the genre, a pioneering spirit and sense of ingenuity that’s infectious. Sure, it’s a satire, but it’s not a far cry from some of the craziest entries in the annals of blaxploitation! Black Dynamite’s outrageous conspiracy subplot isn’t any crazier than the water poisoning plot of “Three the Hard Way” or the tainted fried chicken of “Darktown Strutters”, and the Kung Fu Island bit is something straight out of a Jim Kelly film (any Jim Kelly film, for that matter)! This is some seriously smart and well-researched satire, here, and, when combined with the film’s visual style, Black Dynamite becomes something more than just a simple parody; it’s is a highly stylized, painstakingly crafted work of satirical art.
Sony brings Black Dynamite to Blu-ray with an appropriately grimy 1.85:1 1080p transfer that retains the intentional grain and grit of the film’s visual style, but still manages to impress in terms of detail, depth, and dimension. The super 16mm film used to shoot the film absolutely crushes blacks and dark colors, making for an vaguely sepia toned, highly contrasted image that looks quite marvelous, here. Sure, there’s an occasionally muddy quality to darker scenes, but this looks exactly as I would expect an HD restoration of an obscure, low-budget 70’s flick would, and the results are quite appealing.
The Dolby DTS-HD 5.1 audio track offers rich and robust bass response, perfect for the gut-rumbling funk soundtrack that runs throughout, as well as a nicely mixed collection of surround effects and atmospheric sounds, although nothing that would shatter the illusion that you’re watching a low-budget ‘70’s flick. Sound effects, like gunshots and explosions, sound appropriately canned and era-authentic, while dialogue is crisp and smooth, with the occasional (and intentional) drop-out and hint of distortion.
Extras include a hilarious and informative commentary track featuring White, Minns, and Sanders, and plays like a master course in blaxploitation cinema. By the end of this commentary, you’ll probably be armed with a list of “must see” titles suggested by the trio, as well as a taste of just how difficult a flick like Black Dynamite was to pull off. Two fairly in-depth featurettes - Lighting the Fuse (HD), and The '70s: Back in Action (HD) – offer interviews and production snippets that further delve into the origins of the film, its inspirations, and the people who helped see White and co.’s vision come to fruition. The Comic-Con Experience is a panel interview filmed at the San Diego comic con, and, essentially, much of what we’ve already learned from the commentary and featurettes is repeated here, but it’s inclusion is appreciated nonetheless. Rounding out the extras are several deleted scenes (in SD), and several trailers for other Sony releases (HD).
Black Dynamite is nothing short of a satirical masterpiece, and, if you’re even remotely familiar with blaxploitation cinema, you’ll be howling with delight from the minute the opening credits roll. I do have to wonder, however, whether or not those unfamiliar with the genre will truly appreciate the film’s humor or the sheer amount of work that went in to making it look and sound as authentic as it does. I actually watched the film with someone who’s never managed to stay conscious through an entire blaxploitation film (poor wife…I put her through so much), and, while she laughed at a few of the more obvious bits, the subtle genre-specific stuff – and, in my opinion, the best parts of the film – completely went over her head. Honestly, though, I think White, Minns, and Sanders had no intention of making a broadly appealing comedy, here. They knew who their audience was, and they made this for them, broad appeal be damned. While that may not guarantee big box office, it certainly will earn them some serious street cred, cult appeal, and fan loyalty, and, I, for one, can’t wait to see the further adventures of Black Dynamite, hopefully coming to a smelly, grimy, rundown theater near you.