In 2009, Michael Jai White starred in “Black Dynamite,” a pitch-perfect parody of the 1970s Blaxploitation genre. It was something of a passion project, with White sharing screenplay credits with co-writer Byron Minns and director Scott Sanders. Across its brisk 84-minute runtime, “Black Dynamite” synthesized sharp comedy and thrilling action with hyper-specificity and rich, fourth-wall-breaking detail. It became an instant cult classic. Though it wasn’t exactly a box-office success, its cultural impact was far more significant, even leading to an animated spin-off on Adult Swim.
Fourteen years later, White has returned with “Outlaw Johnny Black,” a film that transposes “Black Dynamite”’s general ethos to a new genre: the American western. Once again, White is in the lead as Johnny Black, a wanted man on a quest for revenge against murderous bank robber Brett Clayton (Chris Browning). His journey leads to him masquerading as a preacher in a mining town run by a land baron named Tom Shelly (Barry Bostwick), looking to dodge his would-be captors.
With “Black Dynamite,” White drew heavily on influences such as “Black Caesar” and “Superfly,” sending them up with a loving kind of parody. Here, he draws from films such as the late Sidney Poitier’s 1972 western “Buck and the Preacher,” but from a more earnest perspective.
Performers, including Tommy Davidson and Kym Whitley, return like loyal members of an acting company in various supporting roles. In “Outlaw Johnny Black,” White has found a new hero to anchor this story, one who is equally adept at handing out beatings and gunshots as he is with using his charm and wit. Like “Black Dynamite,” the film is marketed primarily as a comedy, albeit with less focus on the central task of parodying its key influences. But that choice has one problem: “Outlaw Johnny Black” is largely not very funny.
Oh, there are definitely attempts at comedy throughout. Hell, a few of them even succeed. It’s difficult not to guffaw at Davidson’s delivery of the made-up word “whiterification” when struggling to explain how white people took over their humble town. White possesses a gift for comic timing. He delivers many of the same bravado-breaking asides that were a staple in “Black Dynamite,” proving he’s still great at poking fun at himself in these macho hero roles.
Forty-five minutes longer than “Dynamite,” this is a much slower-paced, more methodical approach to reviving a bygone genre. When fights with guns or fists break out, White’s history as an action performer comes to the fore, and the results are entertaining and engaging. But with far fewer jokes, gags, and comedic scenarios at play, and the action itself is few and far between, there’s a lot of dead air and a sense of exhaustion on screen.
While it’s laudable to see White take the drama of the story more seriously and to watch him luxuriate in the tone of the films that inspired it rather than simply sending them up, the script is not strong enough to support the weight of its ambition. Overall, the performances are richer, with substantial supporting turns from Anika Noni Rose and Erica Ash that punch above the stock characters of “Dynamite.” But it’s a lot harder to make a good Western than it is to parody one. Doubly so if the audience to whom you’ve marketed your western comes in expecting parody only to receive loving homage.
“Outlaw Johnny Black” isn’t quite as memorable, uproarious, or quotable as “Black Dynamite.” It doesn’t have the enticing original music of Adrian Younge or the attention to period detail that made “Black Dynamite” such an easy escape to live in. But there’s an earnestness on display and an unmistakable passion that carries through even the toughest, least entertaining of its passages.
The film is not what was expected. It remains to be seen if it’s what anyone even wants. But it isn’t entirely without merit. Perhaps this maudlin story of vengeance might prove more effective on a rewatch, divorced of preconceptions. Or maybe next time, they should stick to what works.
“Outlaw Johnny Black” is out exclusively in theaters now.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, “Outlaw Johnny Black” wouldn’t exist.