Director: Malcolm D. Lee
Cast: Eddie Griffin, Aunjanue Ellis, Chris Kattan, Dave Chappelle, Gary Anthony Williams, Chi McBride, Neil Patrick Harris, Denise Richards, Billy Dee Williams
MPAA Rating: (for language, sexual humor, drug content and campy violence)
Running Time: 1:23
Release Date: 5/31/02
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Review by Mark Dujsik
Undercover Brother does to the blaxploitation movie what Austin Powers did to the ’60s spy movie, albeit not quite as successfully. It mocks the conventions and clichés of the genre by taking a representative of it (in this case, a Shaft-esque private detective) and placing him in a world outside of what he is accustomed to. Essentially, everyone but him is in on the joke. In this case, though, everyone is also part of a joke—and a much larger one than a simple case of genre bending. The movie also serves as a satire of race relations in America. In subject matter and intent, this is a much more ambitious comedy than it first appears to be, but it isn’t quite as funny as its premise would suggest. The exposition is amusing and the risqué political incorrectness that is scattered throughout offers ample moments of disbelief turning into laughs, but the movie just has too much on its plate to really stay afloat for its just under ninety minute running time.
Undercover Brother (Eddie Griffin), is your typical private eye stuck in a ’70s time warp. He concentrates his efforts on keeping things funky. He has a sort of Robin Hood complex, and while infiltrating a large bank run by a multinational corporation, he mistakenly interrupts a different mission by B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., an acronym (what it stands for is never revealed) for a group looking to stop The Man. The Man sits in the shadows of his company, concocting plans to keep African-Americans and their culture from penetrating white society. His latest plot involves a Colin Powell-like general (Billy Dee Williams) who may be the first black presidential candidate with a chance of winning. Wanting "to keep the White House white," The Man drugs the general, and instead of announcing his candidacy, he declares his plan to open a fried chicken fast-food chain at a press conference. The chief of B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., aptly named The Chief (Chi McBride), orders operative Sistah Girl (Aunjanue Ellis) to recruit Undercover Brother to help discover the root of The Man’s plan.
If the not-so-subtle social allegory seems too heavy a theme for comedy, you’ll be surprised how well it actually does work. The movie indulges in broad stereotypes for its humor, but the gimmick is not only cleverly presented but also crosses both sides of the racial border—it’s an equal opportunity satire. From the representations of other B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. members like Smart Brother (Gary Anthony Williams) and Conspiracy Brother (Dave Chappelle) to the white intern Lance (Neil Patrick Harris) who was hired because of affirmative action, the script by John Ridley and Michael McCullers and based on an internet cartoon series by Ridley is fearless when it comes to walking all over PC barriers. There are plenty of in-jokes present; my personal favorite is The Chief who randomly starts to yell at his subordinates like all police chiefs in the movies. He even gives a knowing glance to a photo of Danny Glover when he quotes his famous Lethal Weapon mantra.
There is a mixed selection of comedic performances in the movie, but its center is solid. Eddie Griffin has played the comic relief to annoying effect in Double Take and John Q, but here he has a role that allows him to stretch his range beyond typical nuisance. The B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. members are also equally met. Chi McBride is very funny as The Chief, and Dave Chappelle and Gary Anthony Williams have multiple moments in their self-explainable roles. It’s Neil Patrick Harris, though, who surprises the most. Both he and his character have highly amusing late turns. The villains, however, don’t fare quite as well. Chris Kattan plays Mr. Feather, an eminent henchman in The Man’s organization. He is completely out of place and still shows no sign of possibility, especially after Corky Romano. Denise Richards plays a femme fatale with her usual blandness.
Undercover Brother is hit and miss. The premise is right on, but the execution still leaves something to be desired. I’ll commend the movie for its gall to tackle such touchy subjects with such seeming ease, but I wish a bit more time had been taken to polish its slower, less successful bits. Then we would have had something special.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.