Outlaw Johnny Black surprises with its ambition

Outlaw Johnny Black surprises with its ambition

Folks going into Outlaw Johnny Black expecting Black Dynamite are going to be disappointed. I will admit that for the first third or so of the movie, disappointment was the name of the game for me. But it soon became clear that my expectations were unfair, as providing a retread of the comedy and rhythm of Black Dynamite is not at all the intention of the filmmakers. No, instead of delivering a parody of westerns the same way that they delivered a parody of blaxploitation films, the deranged geniuses behind Outlaw Johnny Black were trying to create a legitimate western, albeit one with some seriously silly elements. And on that front, it’s a huge success.

The plot is ripped straight from the annals of old west mythology: our titular anti-hero has spent his life seeking revenge. As a child, his father, a beloved preacher, was gunned down by the cruel Brett Clayton (a delightfully arch Chris Browning). Ever since then Johnny Black (Michael Jai White) has been building a legend of his own. He lives by his own code — one of pursuing ladies and justice, with violence only to be dished out against those who deserve it. And he knows that the day will eventually come when he and Clayton will meet again, and the latter will be put down like the dog that he is.

But there’s a problem: it’s hard to dish out justice when the long arm of the law is on your tail, which leaves our hero posing rather unconvincingly as a preacher in a small mining town, which itself is under attack by a greedy land Baron (Barry Bostwick, who we respect in this house).

It takes a bit for the film to find its rhythm, and at a runtime that exceeds two hours, it’s never in a rush to do so. At first, the tonal jumpiness feels like a liability. How could the follow up to one of the highest gag-to-laugh ratios this side of Airplane! be so uninterested in creating a new wall-of-gags? But by the time the second act rolls around I found myself deeply invested in the characters and their outcomes. Sure, a deacon named Deacon Deacon is about as silly a gag as one can imagine, but Deacon Deacon Deacon is a good man. A man who deserves the love he seeks. A man who deserves to share his faith from the pulpit, free from the influence of a dishonest, selfish outlaw who can (and does) bed pretty much any woman he wants.

Yet despite his comically criminal exterior, Johnny Black himself is a rich, human character with an arc all his own. Michael Jai White plays him with only a fraction of the overt verve that he did with Black Dynamite, resulting in a character who, unlike his predecessor, is more than just a slick gag delivery system. Johnny Black is a complicated dude with a moral code in need of adjustment. He deserves his revenge, but should he crave it in the first place? Big questions to be asking, for sure, yet Outlaw Johnny Black takes us there, digging much deeper than anyone could reasonably expect.

From a writing standpoint, there are some growing pains. As previously mentioned, the script is not always successful in serving its many masters, yet one cannot help but to respect the ambition on display. White and co-writer Byron Minns clearly aspire to more than just silliness, and they mostly clear this hurdle. In the fourteen years since their previous collaboration, they’ve spent a lot of time making Outlaw Johnny Black as thematically rich and meaty as possible. A few rewrites and a kill-your-darlings session would get this where it needs to be, but I’m not about to harsh on such a valiant attempt. Their next script is sure to be aces.

And who could blame them for not wanting to pare this down further? There’s a creative freedom here that any artist would kill to have, and it’s clear that the filmmakers are seizing this rare opportunity as best as they can. In addition, White has graduated to the director’s chair. As feature debuts go, he does a great job effectively utilizing the cinematic language of the western and often subverting it, creating both compelling drama as well as the bizarre humor we’ve come to expect from this filmmaking team. The shot composition is somewhat flat compared to the classics of the western genre, but as far as digital era visions of the old west go, it’s better than many. Surprising no one, White, an action veteran, shows serious directorial chops when it comes to the film’s final showdown. Add to that his undeniable screen presence, and Outlaw Johnny Black is a hootin’ and hollerin’ good time.

Perhaps the most exciting development in the long process of Outlaw Johnny Black’s production is that it’s all culminating in a theatrical release. A film like this is pretty much expected to go straight to streaming, but will instead be enjoying a theatrical run, which will undoubtedly serve the film best. This is meant to be viewed on a big screen with a crowd, after which point it will surely enter home viewing rotation — it would feel right at home as the “silly” entry in a western marathon (and if you’ve ever been to a western marathon, you know that there is always a silly entry).

Directed by Michael Jai White

Written by Byron Minns, Michael Jai White

Starring Michael Jai White, Anika Noni Rose, Erica Ash, Randy Couture

Rate PG-13, 130 minutes

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