They say this cat, Undercover Brother is a bad mother … sorry, I was having an Isaac Hayes moment, but that’s exactly the sort of thing you can expect after seeing Undercover Brother. “This is a great day for black people of all races!” announces The Chief (Chi McBride, Gone in Sixty Seconds) of the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. in a moment of excitement in Eddie Griffin’s first starring vehicle. It’s for bits and pieces like this that Undercover Brother is most noteworthy. It’s also an extremely clever film, deftly riffing on every Blaxploitation and spy film you can imagine. (You know a movie’s up on its spy flick history when you start spotting nods to Our Man Flint and the Matt Helm series.) What it strangely isn’t is very funny. Eddie Griffin, who was so much better than the films that encased him with John Q and The New Guy, is certainly likable enough here, but he rarely lets loose with the kind of manic talent he evidenced in those supporting roles. In fact, David Chappelle’s (Screwed) performance as Conspiracy Brother wipes Griffin — and everybody else — offscreen whenever he appears. It’s not so much Griffin’s fault as it’s the fault of a concept that constrains him into the character of Undercover Brother, who’s kind of like a comedic version of Richard Roundtree’s Shaft wearing Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs’ hair from Welcome Back, Kotter. As a result, Griffin spends so much of Undercover Brother having to be cool (with the odd outburst of comedic cowardice) and rarely gets the chance to run with the film. Chappelle’s Conspiracy Brother is always running with the film — and running his mouth. There’s nothing this guy can’t find a conspiracy in and nothing you can say to him that he can’t turn into an imagined insult. It’s odds on that he’s based in part on Chris Rock’s Chakka Luther King in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, but he’s no less funny for it. The film boasts a strong enough premise — Undercover Brother must stop The Man from destroying the presidential campaign of a retired black general (think Colin Powell with style, or in this case, Billy Dee Williams). Just when the world expects the general to announce his candidacy, he throws everyone a curve by announcing his intention of serving his country by opening a chain a fried-chicken restaurants. (Actually, this at first appeals to Conspiracy Brother, who opines, “I never trusted the Colonel anyhow. What’s a white man know about seventeen different herbs and spices?”) It turns out that The Man has slipped the General a mind-control drug, but it’s not going to be easy setting this to rights — hence the car chases and comic action scenes that comprise the bulk of the movie. What gives the movie its appeal is the fact that it’s just too clever and too damned amiable not to like. What’s unfortunate is that Eddie Griffin finds himself surrounded by other comedians who get to do more than he does. The sole exception to this is the marvelous digression where Sistah Girl (Aunjanue Ellis) and Penelope Snow (Denise Richards) square off against each other in what becomes a wet T-shirt cat fight. Rather than get involved himself, Undercover Brother pulls up an armchair, gets some snacks, and settles back to enjoy the show. It’s all goofy and painless and cheerful, but it somehow keeps missing the kind of edginess it needs to put it over the top. Still, it’s no Pootie Tang.
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