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Film Review: Black Dynamite

Benjamin Walker
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PARK CITY -- Anyone who remembers the pounding music, thump of punches landing, bad dudes and bad hair of 1970s blaxploitation pictures is bound to get a kick out of "Black Dynamite." Even if it's a one-joke movie that runs out of steam, director Scott Sanders manages to keep the gag going for 90 minutes. Picked up at Sundance by Sony, the film should resonate for an older generation but might leave younger viewers wondering what's happening.

Original blaxploitation films often were cheesy, not always by choice, and "Dynamite" sets out to re-create and exaggerate the look and feel of those pictures. Sets by Denise Pizzini and costumes by Ruth E. Carter are a hoot and must have been fun to assemble. Afros galore, wide-collared shirts in awful colors, tons of polyester and period-perfect design make the film feel more like an homage than the real deal.

The acting is even broader than in the originals, with a constant wink at the audience, and at one point a boom mike intentionally is allowed to fall into the frame, as it might have years ago.

The story, too, is classic. Black Dynamite (Michael Jai White) is out of the Shaft mold and has the look down cold. His mustache covers a perpetual pout, and when, in the film's best line, someone tells him to smile, he sneers that he already is smiling.

He's a former CIA agent who freelances cleaning up the 'hood and bedding lots of women. He's like a superhero without superpowers, but he wields mean nunchucks and a powerful kung fu kick.

The action jump-starts when Dynamite's kid brother is wiped out, gangland-style, in the opening scene. The rest of the film is a campy march through characters and fights as the hero seeks revenge for the killing. It's not like there's much at stake or emotional involvement in the characters, but it's amusing to watch them do their thing -- to a point.

All of the stock characters are in place, from the loyal sidekick (Byron Minns) to a smooth-talking hustler (Tommy Davidson) to a neighborhood girl who steals Dynamite's heart (Salli Richardson-Whitfield) to a crooked cop (Kevin Chapman). Even Arsenio Hall and former NBA star John Salley turn up in bit parts. And, if you can believe it, the action ends up at the White House with Dynamite battling President Nixon (James McManus).

Cinematographer Shawn Maurer gives the film an appropriately high contrast and supersaturated style that makes it seem vintage. And the tinny brass, quacking guitar and incessant beat of Adrian Younge's music capture the period sound.

If all of that impressive detail were in service of a real story, it might help hold an audience's attention.

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Sony)
Production: Ars Nova
Cast: Michael Jai White, Kym Whitley, Tommy Davidson, Kevin Chapman, Byron Minns, Salli Richardson-Whitfield, James McManus, Arsenio Hall, John Salley
Director: Scott Sanders
Screenwriters: Michael Jai White, Byron Minns, Scott Sanders
Producers: Jon Steingart, Jenny Wiener Steingart
Executive producers: Deanna Berkeley, James Berkeley
Director of photography: Shawn Maurer
Music/Editor: Adrian Younge
Production designer: Denise Pizzini
Costume designer: Ruth E. Carter
Sales agent: Graham Taylor, Endeavor
No rating, 90 minutes