A high-spirited, clever satire on present-day race relations and a spoof of the '70s Blaxploitation genre, "Undercover Brother," directed by Spike's brother, Malcolm D. Lee (1999's "The Best Man
"), comes as an early-summer surprise. Moving at a clip pace and with a rib-tickling joke always around the corner, this franchise-ready comedy could very well become the next "Austin Powers
Anton Jackson (Eddie Griffin) is a smooth-movin', Cadillac-showin', afro-sportin' black man right out of the '70s decade who crosses paths one day with B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., an organization run by The Chief (Chi McBride), dedicated to racial equality, and always at odds with The (White) Man and his evil henchman, Mr. Feathers (Chris Kattan). The Chief likes Anton's moves enough to offer him a position as Undercover Brother at the organization, which also includes sassy Sistah Girl (Aunjanue Ellis), Smart Brother (Gary Anthony Williams), and Conspiracy Brother (Dave Chappelle), and sole white intern Lance (Neil Patrick Harris).
Undercover Brother's first assignment goes as follows: In his pursuit for white dominance, The Man has managed to brainwash a respected black Presidential candidate (Billy Dee Williams) into forgoing his political career in favor of opening a fried chicken fast food restaurant. As Undercover Brother sets out to get to the bottom of this conspiracy, his mission is distracted with the appearance of Penelope Snow, a.k.a. White She-Devil (Denise Richards), hired by The Man and described as "black man's kryptonite" to turn Undercover Brother into a mayonnaise-loving, khakis-wearing fool.
Bearing an undeniable resemblance to "Austin Powers," "Undercover Brother" is a funnier and, overall, more successfully loopy romp. Based on an Internet cartoon, the title character is sprung to life by the giddily enjoyable Eddie Griffin (2002's "The New Guy
"). Like Mike Myers before him, Griffin's Undercover Brother is outlandish, to be sure, but also a downright lovable movie hero. Through a nonstop sea of hit-and-miss jokes (the jokes that hit are downright hysterical, while the jokes that miss fall completely flat), Eddie Griffin carries the entire movie on his shoulders, and he does it with energized aplomb.
But what makes "Undercover Brother" more than just a forgettable comedy is its sharp-witted, non-preachy comment on black and white relations and racial stereotypes, which the movie gleefully skewers. Written by John Ridley and Michael McClullers, the physical comedy is well-executed and the dialogue is often quote-worthy. The sheer audacity of the central premise--that a black politician gives up his career to start a fried chicken chain--avoids offending because white people are joyfully spoofed just as much, if not more. Less original is the climax, which heavily borrows from the 2000 screen adaptation of "Charlie's Angels
," right down to a seaside mansion exploding, followed by a helicopter action sequence.
In addition to Griffin, the cast has a grand time hamming things up. As Undercover Brother's feuding female companions, Aunjanue Ellis (2000's "Men of Honor"), as Sistah Girl, and Denise Richards (2001's "Valentine
"), as White She-Devil, turn out to be splendid comedic performers in their own right. This is particularly surprising of the radiant Richards, whose acting talents have been questionable in the past. One of the picture's funniest set-pieces is a ruthless catfight between Ellis and Richards, in which they gradually get more and more clothes ripped off of them before stumbling into a shower together. As Mr. Feathers, a closeted lover of black culture, Chris Kattan (2001's "Corky Romano
") is his usual standout self. Finally, Neil Patrick Harris (2000's "The Next Best Thing
"), as the only white man in the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., is a veritable hoot, stealing scenes left and right.
It's rare that movie spoofs work well, and something along the lines of "Undercover Brother" could have just as easily failed miserably. Somehow, through Malcolm D. Lee's direction, the actors' positive comic timing, and a screenplay that is admittedly very clever, everything has come together wonderfully. You may not think too deeply about "Undercover Brother" once it's over, but you won't be able to deny how much you laughed out loud.
©2002 by Dustin Putman