Undercover Brother
review by Gregory Avery, 31 May 2002

As the title character in Undercover Brother, the comedian Eddie Griffin sports a mushroom-like Afro, wide-lapel shirts and jackets and platform shoes, and drives a honey-coloured Cadillac De Ville in which he can take a sharp corner or a skid without spilling one drop of the orangeade in his Big Gulp cup.

This almost knight-like acolyte to Seventies Funk is recruited by a James Bondian organization, the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., who are fighting a James Bondian nemesis, the Man, who seek to rob African-Americans of their African-Americanness. In this instance, they capture a renowned Army general-turned-politician (Billy Dee Williams, who looks a little perplexed at times) who, instead of announcing his candidacy for U.S. president, tells a press conference that he's opening a fried chicken franchise. Something must be wrong!

The B.R.O.T.H. -- oh, you know, is run by Chief Brother (Chi McBride), who sputters, smokes cigars, and has a framed picture of Danny Glover hanging prominently behind his desk; Smart Brother (Gary Anthony Williams), who's the brainy scientist of the group; and Conspiracy Brother (Dave Chappelle), who sees conspiracies against the black man everywhere. There's also Sistah Girl (Aunjanue Ellis), who can take care of herself just fine, thank you. ("That's 'Sis-TAH', not 'Sis-TER'!"  she says, making sure her name retains its funk quotient.) Undercover Brother goes undercover as a business executive in a front company run by the Man, meets up with a potentially lethal female (Denise Richards, making up for her misadventures last year in Valentine), and begins sounding like Urkel in Family Matters, taking a liking to khakis and turtleneck sweaters and even -- horrors! -- mayonnaise.

The most weapon-like object Undercover Brother carries is a wristwatch that dispenses hot sauce -- the deal is that he's so cool, he doesn't need to rely on guns or knives. But the negative, even ferocious, connotations that The Man had in the Sixties and Seventies have been rejiggled for this movie -- here, it's an entity that simply seeks to change African-Americans so that they're the same as everyone else, like the book-burners in Fahrenheit 451 who didn't want people to become confused and unhappy by too many ideas. Undercover Brother, by his own admission, stands for the ideals of being yourself, "finding your own funky part", and standing up for what's right.

While there are a wealth of ideas, here, the filmmakers may have overcompensated in order to make an entertainment that would appeal to everyone -- it feels blanded-out, and doesn't have the bite or edginess of the blaxploitation movies and Seventies funk culture from which it draws on. (The movie's source material, an animated cartoon created by John Ridley for the Internet, was supposed to have had some of that.) The film jolts to life with some of that, briefly, when James Brown is captured by a subaltern (Chris Kattan) of the Man -- Brown busts one of his moves, growls out one of his signature get-down growls, and the burst of sheer raw power that comes forth in that instance is enough to make the evildoers cower defensively. (James Brown doesn't need any guns or knives, either!)

Chris Kattan's fey, rubber-lipped style of comic acting simply just isn't my cup of tea. Eddie Griffin does have the right amount of innate "coolness" needed to keep from looking like, as one character puts it, "Macy Gray with porkchop sideburns" -- he narrows his eyes, leans into the camera, and breaks into a my-T-fine grin to win us over. But he's playing a set of mannerisms, here: there's not enough of a character underneath to give what he's doing much heft. The picture's far from terrible, but it feels awfully lightweight once it's over with. But stick around at the end or you'll miss one of the funniest parts of the movie, which appears during the end credits (it involves Oreo cookies) -- it's a throwaway, but it's a hoot nonetheless.

Directed by:
Malcolm D. Lee

Starring:
Eddie Griffin
Aujanue Ellis
Chris Kattan
Denise Richards
Chi McBride
Gary Anthony Williams
Dave Chappelle
Neil Patrick Harris
Billy Dee Williams

Written by:
John Ridley
Michael McCullers

Rated:
PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be in appropriate
for children under 13.

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