OUTLAW JOHNNY BLACK -- BLACK DYNAMITE Spiritual Successor Is Heinous Crime Against Cinema and Comedy
Review by Daniel Lima
Following up a cult classic like Black Dynamite is a tall order, particularly when the spiritual successor has virtually none of the production team returning. Still, with Michael Jai White taking the reins, and much of the cast of that first film back again, it’s reasonable to assume that Outlaw Johnny Black might recapture some of the charm. Who could have expected that it would not only fail, but would become one of the most pathetic attempts at a comedy film in years?
White produces, writes, directs, and stars as the titular outlaw in the Old West, who seeks vengeance against the man who killed his father years ago. A chance encounter with a traveling preacher sets him on path of Hope Springs, a small Black community under the thumb of a powerful land baron. Forced to play the role of preacher himself, he soon finds himself embroiled in the town’s problems, and for a cruel and interminable two hours, twelve minutes and twenty-two seconds we are forced to endure his journey from criminal to defender.
Right off the bat, it’s clear that this film lacks the vision of its predecessor. Black Dynamite was an absurdist parody of the black cinema of the 1970’s, doing the best to stretch its meager budget and mimic the idiosyncrasies of the films of that era. That a crowd-funded indie in 2023 cannot go to the same lengths in tackling the western is defensible. The money isn’t there to shoot on 16mm film, have lavish sets and costumes, or even have a great score. That is perfectly understandable.
The problem is, the western genre has long been the playground of filmmakers who sought to make the most of the little they had. Since the B-movies of the 1930’s, directors have utilized beautiful natural landscapes for free production value; Italian directors employed dramatic camerawork and dreamlike editing to make their films stand out; colorful and unique characters often populated these films, the kind of oddballs that might feel out-of-place today but seem at home in a dingy frontier barroom. These stylistic flourishes require nothing more than someone with ambition driving things forward.
That someone was sorely missed on the production of Outlaw Johnny Black. Michael Jai White directs with the disinterest of a parent taking a video of a grade school play, with no greater ambition than capturing every second of a scene within a frame. Conversations take place with actors rooted and unmoving in position; scenes go by with machine-like sluggishness; the film is flatly lit and bland in the way any bargain bin DTV western is. It’s easy to imagine a world where this film throws in a POV shot, or a surreal dissolve, or frenetic handheld action, anything to lend the cheap looking sets a sense of verve or atmosphere. White has never been a sterling director - or a good one for that matter - but considering the years he spent bringing this project to fruition, it’s depressing to see his artistic horizons so limited.
Unlike the previous film, this tells a grounded and earnest story, with characters that change and events that are supposed to feel meaningful. Unfortunately, it takes its sweet time doing so, only getting around to the core conceit of an outlaw masquerading as a preacher after forty agonizing minutes. The next hour and a half is a meandering mess, constantly mugging for laughs yet never establishing tangible stakes. Combined with lackluster editing that drags out dull conversations where characters repeat poisonously unfunny lines to each other ad nauseum, it becomes impossible to become emotionally invested in these characters’ journey.
The cast is filled with many actors from Black Dynamite, as well as newcomers who have done plenty of other work, and they all do the best with the material they are handed. These roles are universally thankless, given nothing more to do than spit lame lines, utterly lacking the sharp characterization and dynamism of the colorful figures of that film: Chicago Wind, Cream Corn, Gloria and Chocolate Giddy-Up. Nothing about any of these characters feels distinct.
All of this could be forgiven if Outlaw Johnny Black was a hundredth of a percent as funny as its predecessor. Of course, that isn’t the case. This film is filled with the hackiest of hack material, the kind of jokes that would be at home in a straight-to-video family movie in 1995, or a Disney Channel Original Movie, or a latter-day Three Stooges film, the ones where they’re all washed up. A two-minute comic set piece hinges on Johnny Black convincing a man he wasn’t trying to escape out a window, but airing out his feet; an indigenous American sees his prisoner has escaped, and he sheds a single tear (a reference to an old ad that trafficked in indigenous stereotypes); a man delivers an impassioned speech that’s utter nonsense, then says he has to pee. This is the level that the film operates on.
Any possible laughs that could be wrung out this dire material are smothered by the lack of craft. There’s a reason comedies tend to run short: timing is paramount, and keeping the gags tight and rapid keeps an audience on its toes, never knowing when the next joke may come. The glacial pace, the unimaginative visuals, the stiff blacking, the weak characters, every weakness of the film blunts the impact of these jokes, limp and toothless as they are. The film never goes for the low-hanging fruit when there is decaying, rotting waste on the ground, and no scene better encapsulates the depths this film goes to than the scenes with the native American tribe.
Early on, the preacher that Johnny Black meets on the road is attacked and captured by a band of indigenous Americans. When he wakes, he is at their camp, with the chief forcing him into marriage. The indigenous people are played by a variety of ethnicity - the chief by the South Asian Russell Peters - their costumes look stereotypical costumes bought at Party City, they speak in gibberish that sounds vaguely English (“You, huh, him, huh”), and the person the preacher is married off to is played by a large man, because in the cosmology of this world that would be super gross.
If this scene showed up in an S. Craig Zahler movie, or a Coen Brothers movie, it would rightly be called insensitive at best, racist at worst. The excuse that it’s a joke about how Native Americans are depicted in Hollywood westerns feels inadequate, because unlike Black Dynamite this film makes no attempt to imitate those works. Even if it did, it’s a joke that was made fifty years ago in Blazing Saddles, which would make it just another joke stolen from that movie. No matter how you cut it, it’s a horribly unpleasant portrayal of indigenous people. The only thing keeping it from being truly hateful and repugnant is that it’s genuinely embarrassing to think of an grown adult writing this and finding it funny.
It might seem unfair to constantly compare this film to a 2009 indie that clearly had more to work with, but the contrast is illuminating. Whatever resources Black Dynamite was afforded, at the end of the day it was clearly a labor of love and passion, for both the filmmaking process and the films that came before it. The jokes ere constant and varied, working both as surface-level silly gags and deep-cut references to cult classics. They dynamic camerawork, the choppy editing, the careful attention to blocking and how people move through a scene, every individual element of the film would capture the feel of blaxploitation cinema even if it was shot on DSLR. More than anything, that is what has allowed the film to hold the stature that it does.
Outlaw Johnny Black has none of that. It is lazy, shoddy, asinine, and childish. I respect any filmmaker willing to shoulder the burden of self-producing their work, but it is clear that Michael Jai White is not up to the task here. A laughless, grating, arduous experience, this is an affront to both comedy and cinema, and I lament every second of my life lost watching it.
Outlaw Johnny Black hits theaters September 15.