Now streaming on:
Michael Jai White took the Blaxploitation genre for a ride back in 2009 with his cult classic, "Black Dynamite." Unlike any other at the time, the comedy flick was an anomaly of Black cinema: Tyler Perry flicks ran amok, and "The Princess and the Frog" saw the first Black Disney princess as a frog for most of the runtime. Meanwhile, "Black Dynamite" was the freshest Black film with enough cartoonish kinetic energy that it spawned a stylized-yet-short-lived animated series on Adult Swim shortly after.
Trading a pair of bellbottoms for a gunslinger's hat, White returns to genre spoof movies with his latest, "Outlaw Johnny Black." In it, the filmmaker passionately tips his hat to the spaghetti western genre, ala Gore Verbinski with "Rango" or translucently Sidney Poiter with "Buck and the Preacher." Though it takes too long to get his gun out, "Outlaw Johnny Black" is a well-crafted and funny Spaghetti Western comedy with a refreshing goofiness and a delightful lead.
Like many films of the same ilk, "Johnny Black" opens with the titular stoic-faced hero (Michael Jai White) slowly making his way into an old western Cheyenne, Wyoming, on the back of a horse. He stumbles into a town bar to get a drink while people, including the sheriff, look at him respectfully and fearfully. Black looks outside and sees a white criminal group mistreating a Native American pair. He confronts the gang, and the leader tries to intimidate him, but Johnny Black doesn't flinch. As the leader calls him a "Dumb N...," Black kicks him in the head. As the leader drops, someone offscreen shouts, "He was going to say nincompoop." White's martial arts skills then come into play as he kicks multiple goons in the head and fires his gun, his work behind the camera bearing the same assurance in style as any given Italian-made Western classic from the '60s. White also has a new comical wit that aims for a relaxed nature, embracing the essential Western elements during this cold open.
In typical fashion, "Outlaw Johnny Black" is a revenge tale about wanted gunslinger Johnny Black hunting for Outlaw Brett Clayton (Chris Browning), who killed Black's father as a kid. His vengeance fuel is so high that he carries a bullet with Clayton's name engraved.
After he saves the Native folk in the opening minutes, Black is jailed because, well, it's in the title. He soon escapes from being hung and goes into hiding. Dehydrated in the scorching desert, Black meets Reverend Percy (a hilarious Byron Minns), who offers him water. Percy is on his way to a nearby predominately Black-inhabited mining town to become the new church pastor and meet a lover, Bessie Lee (Erica Ash), with whom he's been exchanging letters. A Native tribe ambushes the two, and Percy gets an arrow shot to the chest—but don't worry, he's alive. He somehow ends up in a weird Looney Tunes-esque scenario with him in a bird costume.
Black escapes and enters the town, posing as Percy even down to the preacher's occupation. Once he learns that the church has an amount of wealth to it, he plans to stick around till he can grab the loot and go. Eventually, he gets involved with the community and falls for Bessie Lee's sweetheart sister, Jessie Lee (Anika Noni Rose). But a notorious Land Baron (Barry Bostwick) has taken over the town. Once Percy reaches the town and catches Black taking over his identity, Black persuades him through the power of gun holstering to let him play pastor until the time is right.
While the humor is restrained compared to "Black Dynamite," White's sincere filmmaking—tight choreography during gunplay or bar fight sequences—compensates heavily. And White seems more reflective and mature with "Outlaw Johnny Black." His concentration on character, an outlaw learning about the power of community, is executed with leveled integrity albeit familiarity. As he impresses by nailing each facet of the Western genre on the page and behind the screen, White's strongest suit is his consistent straying from any cynical territory. He doesn't try to aim for the same traits that made "Black Dynamite" a hit, nor does he try to be as outrageous as other Western parodies.
"Outlaw Johnny Black" has White throwing his name on the small list of Black-helmed Western flicks alongside Poitier, Mario Van Peebles, and The Bullitts. It's a small list, with many R-rated movies to count. White's Western character is primed to be a Western hero for a new wave of kids and adults who never had a Johnny Black to look up to.
Now playing in theaters.
Michael Jai White as Outlaw Johnny Black
Anika Noni Rose as Jessie Lee
Erica Ash as Bessie Lee
Byron Minns as Reverend Percival Fairman
Kevin Chapman as US Marshall Cove
Kym Whitley as Sister Betty
Tommy Davidson as Clancy
Buddy Lewis as Deacon Fry
Glynn Turman as Bullseye Black