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"UNDERCOVER BROTHER"
(2002) (Eddie Griffin, Chris Kattan) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Comedy: A cool throwback from the '70s joins an underground organization determined to stop the villainous The Man from whitewashing black culture.
PLOT:
Ever since the 1960s and '70s, black culture has gone downhill, all thanks to the efforts of The Man to whitewash America. As a result, an underground organization known as The B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. - led by The Chief (CHI McBRIDE) and his top assistants, Sistah Girl (AUNJANUE ELLIS), Conspiracy Brother (DAVID CHAPPELLE), Smart Brother (GARY ANTHONY WILLIAMS) and lily-white intern Lance (NEIL PATRICK HARRIS) - is constantly striving to thwart The Man's various efforts.

His latest - thanks to the work of his minion Mr. Feather (CHRIS KATTAN) - is to use a mind control substance to brainwash all black people. Of course, they need an agent to deliver the substance and so use former Defense Secretary and war hero, General Warren Boutwell (BILLY DEE WILLIAMS). Once a leading Presidential candidate, Boutwell is now under the control of The Man and is subjecting America's black population to the mind control drug via the offerings at his various fried chicken outlets.

Needing to figure out what's happened to Boutwell, The B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. enlists the aid of Undercover Brother (EDDIE GRIFFIN), a Robin Hood sort of character straight from the '70s who's been working on his own to help out the subservient black masses. Although he and Sistah Girl initially don't get along, they set out to uncover The Man's plan, which involves Undercover Brother posing as Anton Jackson, a whitewashed black man.

As he gets closer to the truth, The Man unleashes "the black man's kryptonite" in the form of Penelope Snow a.k.a. White She Devil (DENISE RICHARDS), who immediately bedazzles Undercover Brother. From that point on, the members of The B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. try to break him from the white girl's spell, find The Man's lair, and put an end to his actions.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Movie characters originate from various sources with many coming from the screenwriter's imagination. They also stem from real life people as well as characters that originally appeared in novels, TV shows, plays, comic books and the like. Thus, it was inevitable that they'd eventually be based on an Internet creation as well.

No, I'm not referring to Harry "Ain't It Cool News" Knowles - although he may have been the first Internet "personality" to appear in a feature film - but rather Undercover Brother. Created by novelist and screenwriter John Ridley ("Three Kings," "U Turn") for the website UrbanEntertainment.com, the retro character appeared in various 3 to 5 minute shorts and now makes his big screen debut in Universal's appropriately titled "Undercover Brother."

A silly, amusing and occasionally rather funny spoof of "blaxploitation" films of the 1970s (such as "Shaft" and "Superfly") as mixed with James Bond, the picture will obviously draw inevitable comparisons to the Austin Powers character and movies.

Both feature protagonists dressed and behaving as if from another era (although "AP" made more sense as to why) who are smooth yet dorky, hip with the period vernacular, popular with the ladies, and work as agents battling a villain who's set to destroy them or at least their way of life.

Not being familiar with Ridley's original Internet work, I can't state whether the rip-off started back then, but the fact that the film's other screenwriter, Michael McCullers, also co-penned the second and third "Austin Powers" films gives one the impression that he may have had a little more than something to do with the rather obvious similarities.

Of course, and considering the genre, there's always room for many such films, but only as long as they're funny. So far, the "Austin Powers" films have been with their James Bond parodies. While this film has its moments, it's not in the same league as those pictures for a variety of reasons.

For starters, the source material is rather limited. While the blaxploitation films had their heyday in the '70s, they're distant memories - if that - for most viewers. In addition, Keenen Ivory Wayans pretty much tapped the subject in his 1988 spoof, "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka."

Then there's the plot and related comical situations and standalone jokes. Granted, the thought of "The Man" being personified as a, well, man, is amusing, but the writers and director Malcolm D. Lee ("The Best Man") don't get as much mileage from the idea and related material as one would like to see. Like many spoofs and parodies, this one is filled with hit or miss humor and the main storyline feels episodic at best. For every joke or bit of humorous material that works, there's just as much or more that doesn't.

In fact, after a fun and funny opening - featuring a Big Gulp, a spinning convertible Caddy and one cool character - the film leads the viewer through some rather long dry spells where the film begins to exude that "It probably would have worked better as a skit on 'Saturday Night Live'" vibe. Fortunately, that doesn't last throughout the thankfully scant 80 some minute runtime, as there are enough amusing moments to keep things moving.

Where the film really pales in comparison to the "Austin Powers" films, however, is with its characters and the performances from those who embody them. While Eddie Griffin ("The New Guy," "John Q.") gets the look, attitude and vernacular of the title character down pat, it's essentially a one-note creation that only allows the actor so much latitude in which to work.

One could argue the same to be true about Powers, but Mike Myers made that character such a lovable goofball that he became a memorable cultural icon. I doubt the same will hold true for Undercover Brother.

The biggest error and/or omission, though, is in not fleshing out "The Man." Far weaker than Dr. Evil or even the similar villain in "Zoolander," the character is never really seen and barely interacts with anyone, all of which make his comments seem just racist rather than funny.

Instead, the filmmakers opted to use the rubbery Chris Kattan ("Corky Romano," "Monkeybone") as the comical heavy. While it's amusing and occasionally rather funny watching his character succumb to his subconscious "blackness" - to the point of him nearly seeming possessed - the running gag begins to get a bit old after a while. It then completely disappears in the unsatisfying and decidedly unfunny action climax.

David Chappelle ("Screwed," "Blue Streak") has some stereotype-based fun as a conspiracy-minded agent, Gary Anthony Williams ("Ride," TV's "Malcolm in the Middle") plays the Bond/Q-like inventor (but doesn't come up with too many imaginative devices), Aunjanue Ellis ("The Caveman's Valentine," "Men of Honor") plays the irked female agent and Chi McBride ("Gone in Sixty Seconds," "Disney's The Kid") plays the loud and seemingly angry boss.

Meanwhile, Denise Richards ("The World is Not Enough," "Drop Dead Gorgeous") plays the white temptress sent in to distract the hero - she eventually takes on something of a Barbarella look and is called "the black man's kryptonite" - and Neil Patrick Harris ("The Next Best Thing," "Starship Troopers") plays the lily-white intern who's employed in the black organization due to affirmative action. Billy Dee Williams ("Batman," "The Empire Strikes Back"), though, is mostly wasted as a brainwashed dupe and former general who opens a fried chicken chain (with the weak gag being that it's the General's, rather than the Colonel's chicken).

A bit funnier in concept than execution, the somewhat entertaining film offers enough amusing and occasionally rather funny bits to keep things moving at a rapid and mindless clip. Yet, one can't help but feel that either the filmmakers missed some golden opportunities or that the source material simply ran dry before the picture could run its course. Silly fun, but nowhere as good, clever or enjoyable as the "Austin Powers" films, "Undercover Brother" rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed May 28, 2002 / Posted May 31, 2002

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