"I ain't be got no weapon! Why you be gotta pull a knife on me!" So exclaims a desperate black actor in an audition before an indifferent white casting committee in Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle. In the 15 years since that production, the perfect Hollywood crossover comedy has remained elusive. Fortunately, urban satire is back -- and bad -- in the form of Undercover Brother.
The beauty of this smart, sharp comedy lies in its dexterity, as it raises one fist in a friendly Black Power salute and firmly gooses the audience with the other. Based on the animated Internet series by John Ridley -- devote a little office time to UrbanEntertainment.com -- the script tickles and kicks with aplomb. All the self-aware street humor neglected in the brutal Shaft remake landed right here, and the result is a rousing crowd-pleaser that knows a little hot sauce helps the medicine go down.
To quote from the cartoon, when Undercover Brother (Eddie Griffin) puts on his Oreo alter ego, Anton Jackson, "He's harmless enough for white people to trust him." This is handy when a soulful, secret solidarity known as the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. taps the freelance Afro-'n'-polyester caricature to infiltrate the tyrannical organization run by a wicked enigma known as The Man (no, not Hollywood; a different tyrannical organization). Via a mind-altering drug cooked into fried chicken, pushed by the roundly respected -- but diabolically mesmerized -- General Boutwell (Billy Dee Williams, mega-brilliant), The Man aims to control society and take over the world (or at least the quintessentially soulful Vancouver locations). This isn't half as funny as it sounds -- it's twice as funny.
Much of the movie's groove comes from its well-drawn characters, who don't toe the line of stereotype but rather vault over it. Under the command of The Chief (Chi McBride of Boston Public), Undercover Brother is assisted by techno-goob Smart Brother (Gary Anthony Williams, ideal) and radical Conspiracy Brother (David Chappelle, ditto). Standout performances are also given by James Brown (exceptional as himself) and Neil Patrick "Doogie Howser" Harris (as the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D.'s white intern).
One of the themes the movie takes seriously enough to deliver lightly is the hero's conquest of the white woman versus reckoning with the sister. The caricatures don't let up here, as The Man's henchwoman Penelope "White She-Devil" Snow (Denise Richards, hot) attempts to trap Undercover Brother in a deliciously awkward karaoke of "Ebony and Ivory." When she squares off against agent Sistah Girl (Aunjanue Ellis, hotter), the funk flies.
Under the helm of director Malcolm D. Lee (The Best Man), the movie sustains its momentum with ease. Not only is Undercover Brother the funniest spy thriller since The Nude Bomb, it feels like the proper sequel to The Blues Brothers, crossing all kinds of lines between cartoonish buffoonery and genuine compassion for its characters. It's a shame that zany comedies don't tend to win awards, because co-producer Brian Grazer has delivered a more gratifying film than his Oscar-hog, and the mind under this Brother's Afro is truly beautiful.