I’ve always been a man who enjoys this one kind of movie hero, let’s call it the counter-hero. The counter-hero is the type of hero who fits the usual mold of the action hero or super hero or what not, but who represents a set of values closer to yours or mine than of the assholes you usually see in movies.
For example you got Snake Plissken or Roddy Piper in THEY LIVE, who are sort of an anti-Rambo. They go around by themselves and take on armies and blow shit up but they aren’t doing it in the name of the american government or military conquest or nothing. Snake is the anarchist Rambo, Roddy is the anti-alien-republican Rambo. John Carpenter pictures are full of these type of characters.
Another example that strays more from the Badass canon would be THE PHANTOM where Billy Zane from DEMON KNIGHT is goin around in a purple super hero costume riding horses and Catherine Zeta Jones is a pirate who wants him dead but implies that she will have sex with his corpse. Anyway Billy is the anti-Indiana Jones because after Indiana and his buddies go get their archaeological treasures in Africa, Billy (representing the original owners) goes to the US, walks right into the museums and steals the shit back. I mean they got sentimental value, you have to understand.
They even got James Remar, the young man from THE WARRIORS, playing a dude who is basically Indiana Jones, with the hat and everything. But he’s a bad guy, and he gets his early on.
So that was a good counter-hero, and of course you got your Billy Jack, your Blacula and etc. Well like I said I enjoy that type of crap and that is a big part of why I enjoyed UNDERCOVER BROTHER, the new comedy from the people who don’t know about the existence of POOTIE TANG. Actually it’s from Malcolm Lee, a cousin of Spike Lee who so far does competent, upbeat commercial movies (his first one was THE BEST MAN). The creator and main Writer is John Ridley, who also created THREE KINGS I guess because they used his basic idea and Wrote their own script. Anyway the premise of the movie is that black culture thrived in the seventies through black power, funk music and blaxploitation films, but came crashing down in the ’80s and ’90s due to the actions of a super villain known only as The Man. (This crash is represented in a montage by the character “Urkel”.)
But since 1972 a band of secret agents called The B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. has fought against The Man in the name of “truth, justice and the afro-american way.” They hook up with Undercover Brother, a short little buck-toothed dude with a huge afro and butterfly collar who drinks Orange Crush and listens to Parliament.
So what you have is basically the black Austin Powers, a goofy tribute to James Bond and Derek Flint movies but also to blaxploitation movies, ’70s fashion and slang, and funk music. (They use the most obvious funk anthems, though: “We Want the Funk,” “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” “Jungle Boogie” and even “Pick Up the Pieces” which is by whites.)
Some of the humor is obvious too, and I don’t blame you if you don’t want to see another god damn movie about afro jokes. Yes, it was a big hair do. Let’s move on. Fortunately this movie treats the afro with proper respect, and the joke is more about Undercover Brother’s strict adherance to the principles of the do than to the do itself. Undercover Brother is cool not just because he says “solid” and listens to good music but because he breaks into banks and erases the mortgage records to help poor people afford their houses.
The big argument will be whether UNDERCOVER BROTHER is better or worse than POOTIE TANG, an argument which must be divided into two sub-arguments: which one is funnier, and which one has more to say about race and american culture? I don’t know the answers or sub-answers or whatever. I think POOTIE TANG probaly has a little more to say and is more original in its approach, but then UNDERCOVER BROTHER has alot of good jabs like the white reporters who say that Colin Powell is “so well spoken” and the idea of Michael Bolton doing a cover of “The Thong Song.” They even get in a joke about the cartoon Colonel Sanders that uses hip hop slang. And if you look a little deeper you see things like the casting of Chi McBride (who a few seasons ago starred in a short-lived tv show that was supposed to set race relations back 50 years) or having a white intern at the office, who turns out to be a white sidekick to show that white people can be okay, like when they have Tony Shalhoub playing in a cop in a movie about arab terrorists.
I would’ve liked to see UNDERCOVER BROTHER play it a little less safe, though. They got Billy Dee Williams playing Colin Powell but the only negative things he does are when he’s under The Man’s mind control powers. I know Colin Powell is supposed to be the most powerful black man in America but I mean look at what it he does, and what they do to him. They send him to Israel for a week and when he can’t end hundreds of years of conflict they make it out like he really blew it. This type of treatment was pretty much prophesized in the movie MARS ATTACK where Paul Winfield played Colin Powell as a guy who thought if he kept quiet and did what they told him then he’d go far. They send him to shake hands with the martians and he gets zapped into a skeleton. But even that’s being too kind – this is a guy who helped cover up the Mai Lai massacre, who said he wasn’t interested in hearing how many civilians were killed in Iraq. Yeah, he’s the most peaceful guy in the Bush regime, but that’s like being the most talented guy in N’Sync.
Anyway. Because UNDERCOVER BROTHER follows traditional hollywood formula a little closer than POOTIE TANG does, the story feels a little less meandering, a little more satisfying. On the other hand Pootie Tang the character is a little cooler than Undercover Brother because Undercover occasionally screams or hits himself in the balls or sells out for some white pussy whereas Pootie never loses his cool for one second. But I guess you can’t hold every character to the high standard set by Pootie Tang.
It may not be the best movie of this type but it’s a good one, and I think alot of individuals will enjoy it. Hopefully if Undercover Brother returns in a couple years they’ll make it a little more subversive instead of just rehashing the same jokes like they do in Austin Powers movies.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.