- The Washington Times - Friday, May 31, 2002

''Undercover Brother," the first amusing rival to "Austin Powers," is a cheerfully crass and irrepressibly playful farce that thrives on racial and movie cliches.
Director Malcolm D. Lee, who made a savvy debut in "The Best Man" two years ago, takes a turn to the screwball in this movie. About 40 years' worth of influences from spy thrillers, crime melodramas and earlier spoofs can be detected in "Brother," which touches facetious bases from "Dr. No" to "X-Men." It even borrows a principal "Powers" collaborator, screenwriter Michael McCullers.
The material originated with the other credited screenwriter, John Ridley, a crime novelist who began to amuse himself with a series of Internet stories celebrating a throwback sleuth called Undercover Brother, inspired by the superheroes of the so-called blaxploitation movies of the early 1970s.
Eddie Griffin refines all the menace out of such prototypes while authenticating Brother in comic terms. He sports a massive Afro and mutton-chop sideburns and handles a Cadillac convertible with stunt-driver finesse, performing 360-degree spins without spilling a drop of his orange Big Gulp. In short, Brother is a likably absurd epitome of cool, even though his own favorite superlative remains "Solid."
A conspiracy is afoot to undermine the presidential candidacy of a distinguished general, Boutwell, played by Billy Dee Williams. At a press conference expected to launch his campaign, the general shocks the press and potential followers by announcing his intention to front for a new fried-chicken franchise, GFC. This switch sets off institutional alarms in a clandestine organization called B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., which evidently lacks a group of words to explain the initials but is officially dedicated to "truth, justice and the Afro-American way."
Any sign that black social gains might be in jeopardy arouses its vigilance. The Boutwell incident is attributed to some kind of skulduggery engineered by a shadowy multinational corporation, MN, bossed by a literally shadowy figure known as the Man.
An ostensibly crack espionage unit at B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. recruits Brother as an infiltrator at MN, where he poses as a preppy ad executive.
This pose proves useful less as a counterespionage measure than as a springboard for romantic farce, matching Mr. Griffin's character with actress Denise Richards. Miss Richards plays a redeemable superweapon of the villains, a temptress called White She-Devil, who is concealed behind a demure dream girl named Penny Snow.
Miss Richards is a delightful camera subject under either name, and while it lasts, the preposterous courtship of mutually deceptive partners proves to be reliably funny. Aunjanue Ellis as a superagent nicknamed Sistah Girl becomes riled when Brother starts consorting with Penny, maybe or maybe not in the line of duty.
Mr. Griffin has one of his best moments when he feels strangely ecstatic while dueting on "Ebony and Ivory" with Miss Richards at a karaoke bar. There's also a rollicking interlude in which his character and two adversaries suspend their fight in order to watch Sistah and She-Devil duke it out in a striptease combat.
The villains never look too threatening because their chief operative appears to be Chris Kattan in a ceaselessly crazed state of mind. Called Mr. Feather, he is torn by ambivalence while authorizing bad deeds. He twists his face into expressions of fiendish repose that suggest Mr. Kattan may have a Dr. Evil of his own. Feather finds it impossible to prevent his split personality from showing, in both dialogue and body language.
The good guys are a genial and versatile crew: Chi McBride as a vociferous boss, Dave Chappelle as a hypocritical voice of resentment nicknamed Conspiracy Brother, Gary Anthony Williams as a portly brainiac nicknamed Smart Brother and Neil Patrick Harris as an incongruous but sweet-tempered white intern, Lance.
Slapdash but consistently zestful and enjoyable, "Undercover Brother" manages to avoid wearing out its welcome in one introductory gulp.

**1/2
TITLE: "Undercover Brother"
RATING: PG-13 (Fleeting profanity, occasional comic and sexual vulgarity, occasional graphic violence in a farcical context, facetious allusions to drug use)
CREDITS: Directed by Malcolm D. Lee. Screenplay by John Ridley and Michael McCullers. Cinematography by Tom Priestley. Production design by William Elliott. Costume design by Danielle Hollowell. Music by Stanley Clarke, with musical supervision by Bonnie Greenberg.
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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