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Release Date: 09/22/23 [Cinemas]
Genre: Action. Comedy. Western.

Studio: Samuel Goldwyn Films.

"Hell bent on avenging the death of his father, Johnny Black vows to gun down Brett Clayton and becomes a wanted man in the process while posing as a preacher in a small mining town that's been taken over by a notorious Land Baron." 


More than a decade ago, Michael Jai White gave the world Black Dynamite, a hilariously over-the-top homage to Blaxploitation films from the 1970s. Not only is it one of the funniest comedies of the 21st century, it is one of White’s most iconic roles to date. While fans have clamored for a live-action sequel ever since the film’s release, a rightful spiritual successor is finally here: Outlaw Johnny Black.


Where Black Dynamite was inspired by Black detective and vigilante films of the 70s (such as Shaft and Coffy), Outlaw Johnny Black is inspired by the same era’s Black western films. Rather than combat pimps and drug dealers, this time around White’s protagonist, the titular Johnny Black, is all about taking down corrupt cowboys.


When we first meet our protagonist, he is a lone wolf looking for the man who murdered his father. In a flashback it’s revealed that Johnny’s dad, an innocent preacher, was murdered by an outlaw named Brett Clayton. After years of searching for Clayton, the irony is that now Johnny has become an outlaw himself, resorting to whatever means necessary to exact revenge. He’s not a bad person, but rather a good one blinded by rage. 


In the film’s opening scene, we see exactly what he’s capable of and how crooked his moral compass is when he intervenes in a fight between two Native Americans and a local town’s sheriff. He doesn’t know the Native Americans, but he knows they don’t deserve to be abused. So he beats the sheriff and his men just enough to disarm them. When reinforcements arrive, they ultimately outnumber and arrest him. And he refuses to retaliate because they are not the men he really wants to hurt. Just like the old proverb, his good deed forces him to face the ultimate punishment. Not only is Johnny jailed and sentenced to be hanged, but he narrowly misses a chance to face-off against Clayton, who robs a local bank shortly after his arrest. Just when it seems like he’s reached the end of his rope (literally), Johnny is saved by the same Native Americans who he helped to save. And while they give him the tools to get back on the path of revenge, he eventually wanders astray and winds up on a complicated road to redemption.


Although Outlaw Johnny Black is clearly meant to be a parody of the Blaxploitation genre and Western films, it is a lot more grounded than its predecessor. That’s not to say it’s better, or that the previous one should be any less lauded. This film is just more serious. Despite a similarly silly tone, there are themes and ideas introduced here that give the film more weight. For example, despite being hellbent on killing Clayton, Johnny often reckons with the idea of what it would mean to let him go. In a monumental moment towards the film’s ending, he profoundly compares holding on to a grudge to holding on to hot coals that only burn yourself. 


White might be the biggest reason for that newfound depth too. For Black Dynamite, White only co-wrote and starred in the film. Here, he also steps into the director chair. On top of all the added responsibility, it feels like there’s more of a cohesive vision for this character. Although Black Dynamite became an instant icon, he was also admittedly one dimensional. Even all these years later, it’s impossible to remember the character as anything other than a badass or recall what the character valued other than justice. Those obviously aren’t bad things, but with Johnny Black you walk away from the film with a much deeper understanding of why he’s lost faith in the justice system and why he’s so reluctant to be viewed as any kind of hero himself. Those feelings are sure to resonate with you long after the laughter wears off.


Now, once again Michael Jai White steals the show as the titular character. This time around, however, it’s the film’s supporting cast that is weaker. That’s not a slight at the actors, but rather the characters. In Black Dynamite, fans were introduced to hilarious side characters such as “Cream Corn”, “Honeybee,” and even Mo Bitches. Despite some of the same actors appearing in this film, none of them are actually memorable. Worse, they are hardly as funny either. The only supporting character and actress worth acknowledging in the film is Jessie Lee, played by Anika Noni Rose. As the film’s leading lady and fearless heroine alongside Johnny, she delivers one of her best and most versatile performances to date. With so many other big names like Barry Bostwick, Randy Couture, and Gary Anthony Williams involved, the final product does feel like a total waste of talent at times.


Aside from the underutilization of its cast, the film’s only other major issue is its runtime. At 2 hours and 15 minutes, the film is built like an epic. While there are some parts that are actually epic, there are some sequences that feel very drawn out and that could have been trimmed. For example, Rose’s character doesn’t even appear in the film until around the hour mark. As such a major character in the film, the lack of screentime feels unjustifiable. Additionally, there are several moments where Barry Bostwick’s antagonist is shown plotting against Johnny and the town he later decides to call home. Although those moments are designed to make Bostwick seem more menacing, they fail to fully capture what he’s capable of and only end up feeling redundant. In fact, the only elongated sequence that actually feels justified is the film’s 20-minute long climax. It exhibits a level of absurdity and sensationalism reminiscent of Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles.

Now, Outlaw Johnny Black isn’t better or worse than Black Dynamite. It’s just different. While there are things for fans of the first to both love and pick apart, as a whole it is still an entertaining film. Between White’s vision and Black’s journey, for the first time in a long time, it’s a Western that joyfully embraces how wild the west really was.


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