Undercover Brother

This Austin Powers wannabe's got soul.

Released in 2002, certified UK-12. Reviewed on 18 Feb 2003 by Drew Tavendale
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With aspirations of being a black Austin Powers, Undercover Brother is nominally a spoof of 1970s 'Blaxploitation' movies, most notably Shaft, that falls short of greatness, but is nevertheless extremely entertaining. A reasonable comedy, it uses as a basis for its humour the stereotypes of, and differences between, Caucasian-American and African-American cultures, with a liberal sprinkling of references to famous contemporary black stars (look out particularly for the Danny Glover reference). Not all these stars, however, are shown in a positive light - the bizarre Dennis Rodman notably being held up as the nadir of the decline of black culture. Others are seen in unexpected ways - Billy Dee Williams (none other than that old space pirate, Lando Calrissian) stars as a highly-decorated general who, rather than run for president as he is expected to do, decides to open a fried-chicken joint.

Based on a successful web-animation of the same name (and adapted by the animation's creator, John Ridley), Undercover Brother centres around the suppression of African-American culture and the oppression of black people by 'The Man', no longer a metaphorical foe, but an actual individual, hell-bent on making sure that no black people rise to power, and that African -American culture has as little impact on White America as possible. Incidentally, he is also blamed for Dennis Rodman.

On The Man's case, and plotting his downfall, is underground organisation the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D, run by The Chief (Chi McBride). McBride looks like nothing less than a younger Uncle Phil from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, though James Avery would have been a far better choice for the role, as McBride brings little energy or ability to the part, and as a consequence his is a largely forgettable character. Working for The Chief are Sistah Girl, Smart Brother (apparently you can tell he's smart because he wears a lab coat and glasses - this is one of the film's weaker points) and Lance (Neil Patrick Harris in an amusing role as 'Token White Guy').

These characters are, for the most part, inconsequential, though Lance does get a few brilliant moments, particularly when he loses it and goes all 'Mortal Kombat' in the film's climax. The true diamond in the rough of the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D's personnel is Conspiracy Brother (Dave Chappelle), a frantic, marijuana-smoking nut who takes the words 'good' and 'hi' as provocative racial imprecations. Most of the laughs that don't come from Undercover Brother himself are from Chappelle, and it is a pity that the rest of the supporting cast just don't match up to him.

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So, to Undercover Brother himself. Played by the fabulous Eddie Griffin, UB spends his time trying to make life better for black people - at the beginning of the movie he is seen erasing a bank's credit records to ensure that black families can get mortgages. This prompts one character to describe him as "a 'Soul Train' reject with a Robin Hood complex', though, given that hair, a Soul Train reject with a Macy Gray complex would be more apt.

UB is subsequently recruited by the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D to aid them in their struggle against The Man, and in particular the new menace of a mind-control drug administered to prominent African-Americans through General Boutwell's (Williams) fried chicken. Instrumental in this nefarious scheme is the oddly-named Mr. Feather (Chris Kattan), one of The Man's top operatives, who assumes on the mantle of the film's main 'baddie'. Unfortunately, it is a mantle that Kattan is ill-equipped to bear, as he spends most of the time prancing about like a trained chimp. He does manage to deliver some genuine laughs, but for the most part he comes across as a poor-man's Mugatu.

There is one other villain in the piece, but that villain, alas, is Denise Richards, who plays White She Devil, an agent of the man sent to exploit Undercover Brother's one weakness - white women (also known in this movie as 'Black Man's Kryptonite'). If you're like me, however, you'll wish that Denise Richards was never in a movie again. If she has to be in it, then it should be as no more than scenery, and she certainly shouldn't be allocated any lines - any time she opens her mouth to talk it is to the film's detriment.

The soundtrack is a delight, featuring a host of funky 70s and contemporary songs, though the use of 'Play That Funky Music' by Wild Cherry is so obvious as to be almost criminal. The incidental music that plays throughout, though entertaining, is an example of the composer walking a legal tightrope. Being nothing more than variations on the theme of Shaft, it is an interesting experiment in how far you can go without infringing copyright (I think this may in fact go too far, and Isaac Hayes may well be have a thing or two to say about it).

Although some of the jokes seem very clich?d, the director is aware of this and is in fact making fun of the tiredness of them. Alas that many of the jokes are delivered with all the subtlety of the well-aimed half brick. Still, Undercover Brother is very funny, and fortunately didn't prove my fears (of all the funniest moments being in the trailer) to be true. Austin Powers it ain't, and it would perhaps have been better with another cast (and especially without Denise 'I Can't Act' Richards), but it still provides more than passable entertainment. Go watch it.

If anyone were to listen to me, I'd give this film 3 out of 5 Combined Goodness Units.

Malcolm D. Lee
Cast list:
Eddie Griffin (Undercover Brother)
Dave Chappelle (Conspiracy Brother)
Chris Kattan (Mr. Feather)