May 31, 2002 | In the world according to Undercover Brother, African-American culture has been in precipitous decline since the first appearance of Urkel on Family Matters. The Man still controls the system, though his agents must maintain constant vigilance against the subversive influences of rap, hip-hop and gangsta slang. And the Great Black Hope, General Boutwell (Billy Dee Williams), a Colin Powell-like military superstar, has inexplicably dropped out of the Presidential race in order to open a national chain of fried-chicken restaurants.
This looks like a job for… well, take another look at the title.
Splendiferously funky in gold leather garb, porkchop sideburns and an Afro the size of a low-lying cumulus cloud, Undercover Brother (Eddie Griffin) is a walking, talking and kung-fu fightin' anachronism, still keeping it real in the 21st-century 'hood in the manner of a '70s blaxploitation icon. He comes across as a live-action cartoon, which isn't at all surprising if you know that the character began as an animated figure in an Internet series by John Ridley. But he's right at home with all the other wittily-conceived caricatures in this scattershot comedy directed by Malcolm D. Lee (The Best Man).
Ridley co-wrote the hit-and-miss screenplay with Michael McCullers, whose credits include Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and its upcoming Goldmember sequel. Like the Austin Powers films, which pivot on wink-wink allusions to '60s spy spoofs, Undercover Brother is at heart an affectionate parody of a campy movie genre. In this case, the satirical targets are '70s blaxploitation flicks – Superfly, Cleopatra Jones and Black Belt Jones are only the most obvious bull's-eyes -- although, again like Austin Powers, Undercover Brother doesn't require detailed knowledge of its source material for you to have a good time. But it helps.
Indeed, if you have seen the movies quoted here, you'll greatly appreciate the savvy evocations of '70s fashion and filmmaking styles. Note the cheesy-looking explosions, the graphic design of the opening credits – and, of course, those ultra-high platform shoes. It's right-on and, more important, spot-on.
The plot? Undercover Brother is recruited by The B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., a super-secret organization dedicated to preserving African-American culture, and pitted against The Man, a James Bondian evil mastermind whose aggressively Caucasian chief lieutenant, Mr. Feather (Chris Kattan), struggles to suppress the rogue streak of funkiness in his soul.
The sci-fi storyline involves brainwashing (which explains General Boutwell's odd behavior), bodacious babes (Denise Richards is a hoot as the semi-villainous White She Devil) and Undercover Brother's unfailing ability to swerve and curve his '72 Cadillac convertible without spilling a single drop of his Big Gulp soft drink. But the funniest stuff can be found outside the margins, in throwaway lines, clever sight gags and wacky non sequiturs that often recall the free-wheeling lunacy of Airplane!
To be sure, patches of the movie feel padded and underwritten. In fact, there are two self-contained bits during the closing credits that indicate a last-minute desperation to stretch Undercover Brother to feature length. But even during periods when the belly laughs subside, Eddie Griffith continues to keep it really amusing with his exuberant flair for physical comedy and mock-serious swagger.
Among the supporting players, Billy Dee Williams gets some of the biggest laughs simply by suggesting how much General Boutwell really, really likes fried chicken. As the fey Mr. Feather, Chris Kattan goes way over the top, with hilarious results. And he's closely followed by Dave Chappelle, who percolates with paranoia as an angry young B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D agent who sees anti-black conspiracies everywhere. He's especially angry that Spike Lee – the director's cousin – has never won an Oscar.
Chappelle's character, aptly named Conspiracy Brother, is incensed when his organization employs a conspicuously Caucasian intern played by Neil Patrick Harris. But their boss, known as The Chief (Chi McBride), simply sighs and explains the new hire: "Affirmative action."