Screenplay : John Ridley and Michael McCullers (story by John Ridley, based on his Internet series)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Eddie Griffin (Anton Jackson), Chris Kattan (Mr. Feather), Denise Richards (Penelope Snow), David Chappelle (Conspiracy Brother), Aunjanue Ellis (Sistah Girl), Neil Patrick Harris (Lance), Chi McBride (The Chief), Gary Anthony Williams (Smart Brother), Billy Dee Williams (General Boutwell), James Brown (Himself)
Those platform shoes! Those silk shirts with the four-foot collars! That denim jacket! Those bellbottoms! That afro!
One might think that the titular character of Undercover Brother was propelled through time by several decades ala Austin Powers (although his natural temporal habitat would be circa 1972, rather than 1967). But, in fact, Undercover Brother's funkadelic style is just his means of expressing his blackness, the kind of blackness personified by Richard Roundtree, Fred Williamson, and Melvin Van Peebles with just a slightly hyperbolic touch of retro exuberance. He's the kind of cool cat who can put his Cadillac Deville into several 360-degree spins and never even come close to losing his cool, much less spilling an ounce of his Big Gulp. As James Brown said, "Sing it loud, I'm black and I'm proud."
In a modern United States in which boy bands like N Sync rule the music world, Cher has an Oscar and Spike Lee doesn't, and mayonnaise is considered eatable, Undercover Brother has his work cut out for him. Recruited by the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., a highly equipped underground resistance organization dedicated to "Truth, Justice, and the Afro-American Way" in its constant battle with "the Man," Undercover Brother goes to work trying solve the mystery of why the first black man to run for president decides to forego the race and instead open a nationwide chain of fried chicken restaurants.
The character and premise of Undercover Brother come from an animated Internet series created by John Ridley (U Turn, Three Kings), who adapted it for the big screen along with Michael McCullers (who cowrote both Austin Powers sequels). They have maintained the basic approach to the material, which is a skewering of modern race relations via a generally good-natured spoof of '70s blaxploitation tropes. Several of the plotlines in Undercover Brother have been lifted entirely from the animated series, including the idea of Undercover Brother having to go incognito into the world of Caucasian tightwads by posing as a bespectacled Republican-geek office worker named Anton Jackson.
Eddie Griffin takes the central role and runs with it, playing up the dated goofiness of Undercover Brother's shtick without sacrificing his inherent coolness. He is surrounded by a good supporting cast, as well, including his fellow B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. agents, the sexy, no-nonsense Sistah Girl (Aunjanue Ellis), the paranoid Conspiracy Brother (David Chappelle), who claims that Madonna is actually a six-foot black man, and the computer-savvy, Al Roker-ish Smart Brother (Gary Anthony Williams), all of whom work for The Chief (Chi McBride). For good measure (and to be fair to affirmative action), Neil Patrick Harris plays the token white member of the team, a clueless intern named Lance who is square enough to wear ties with short-sleeved shirts.
It turns out that "the Man" is, well, actually a man, who lurks in the shadows on a private island and has his conspiratorial bidding done by Mr. Feather, played in a wild and generally unfunny manner by SNL's Chris Kattan. This could have been a chance for Kattan to show that he can play something other than a perennial spaz, but that is simply not the case. The real weapon, though, is Penelope Snow (Denise Richards), aka White She-Devil, a blonde, long-limbed sexpot working for the Man who almost succeeds in making Undercover Brother's geeky alter-ego into his permanent identity.
There are some big laughs to be had in Undercover Brother, and many of its humorous observations about the disparity between white and black points of view are dead on, if not a little too broad. It's a generally hit-and-miss affair, with every really good joke coming on the heels of one or two others that fall flat. Watching Griffin and Richards interact is frequently hilarious, particularly on their first date as they sing "Ebony & Ivory" at a karaoke bar, but then Kattan starts spazzing out again and the movie comes close to losing its vibe.
Director Malcolm D. Lee (The Best Man) gives the movie an upbeat energy, throwing in a few douses of kitschy '70s-style visual flair such as split-screen and conjuring up a soundtrack full of funky odes guaranteed to set the mood. If Undercover Brother isn't always as funny as it thinks it is, it's because most of the jokes are riffs on ones we've already heard before. But, it's still an enjoyably retro ride that relies more on cultural awareness for its humor than sheer gross-out, which is in and of itself a welcome relief.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick