by Jason Coffman
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There seems to be a trend building of films that try to mimic the look and style of films from previous eras. Naturally, the success rate is all over the place— Anna Biller’s Viva and Ti West’s House of the Devil are indistinguishable from the early-70s sex films and early-80s horror films which they replicate, while Alien Trespass basically only correctly copies the clumsy writing and rubber suits of 1950s sci-fi. This wave of replication may have at least partially been kicked off by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse, the first half of which painstakingly attempted to reproduce the look of a cheap action/horror film that had been through the projector a few too many times. Grindhouse may have bombed at the box office, but it’s found more than its fair share of fans on DVD and proven to be just as influential as Tarantino and Rodriguez’s other films.
One of the latest films to jump on the Xerox wagon, Black Dynamite is an attempt to both parody and offer meticulously-detailed tribute to the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s. It’s absolutely hilarious, and except for one very minor quibble (an obvious cheap CG effect late in the film), you could put Black Dynamite on a double bill with Foxy Brown and no one would be able to tell they were made over 30 years apart— at least not if anyone was paying close enough attention. Black Dynamite nails the look and sounds of Blaxploitation cinema, down to the dirty fuzz guitar on the soundtrack, the amazing costume design, and the grainy film quality of a grindhouse print.
Michael Jai White stars as Black Dynamite, basically every badass Blaxploitation hero rolled up into one character. The film opens with a drug deal gone bad, and Dynamite’s brother Jimmy is killed. Vowing revenge, Black Dynamite gets his License to Kill back from the CIA and starts scouring the streets for information on who killed his brother, as well as wiping out anyone who sells drugs to his community. All while taking some time out to romance Gloria (Salli Richardson), an activist who helps run an orphanage and a community center. The film crams in a dizzying array of references to Blaxploitation films, covering all the bases from ridiculously-outfitted pimps to a climactic confrontation that takes place on Kung Fu Island before moving on in a suspiciously quick helicopter ride to a very well-known U.S. government building.
Perhaps the best part of Black Dynamite is the fact that despite the obvious jokes, much of the film is played relatively straight and adheres to the standards of Blaxploitation action movies. It doesn’t hurt that Michael Jai White is a legitimate badass, holding black belts in several martial arts. The fight scenes manage to be both hilarious and seriously awesome at the same time— Black Dynamite looks like he could utterly humiliate Black Belt Jones at a moment’s notice.
Black Dynamite is an hilarious homage to Blaxploitation cinema and easily one of the funniest films of the year. I can’t recommend it highly enough to Blaxploitation fans, and if it doesn’t blow up at the box office it’s a sure bet to become a huge cult hit on DVD, introducing many new fans to the genre. Maybe enough that we’ll get a 30th anniversary special edition of One Down, Two to Go in a few years!
Jason Coffman is a film critic living in Chicago.
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