Few talents get this critic’s enthusiasm on the boil like Michael Jai White; he’s a martial artist, an actor with over a hundred credits including Spawn and The Dark Knight, and also a producer and director of some renown. The key text in understanding what’s so cool about MJW is Black Dynamite, a blacksploitation spoof that showed off his comedic chops to great effect. Now he’s returning to the fray with Outlaw Johnny Black, a rare entry in the comedy Western stakes that should be catnip to his fan-base, riffs ingeniously on Sidney Poitier’s Buck and the Preacher, and will hopefully convert a few more hearts and minds to his deserving cause.
In Outlaw Johnny Black, Michael Jai White does for the Western what his Black Dynamite did for 70’s blacksploitation; an outrageous parody that offers genuine wit, surprising depth, and plenty of affection for the action/comedy genre itself. White plays the title character, an outlaw who ends up disguised as a preacher in a small mining town. The actual preacher displaced, the Reverend Percival Fairman (Black Dynamite’s Byron Minns) is none too happy about what transpires, but Johnny Black has bigger things on his mind, namely seeking his own revenge on the man who killed his father…
‘To forgive is to set free a prisoner, only to find that the prisoner was you…’ is a typical line in this film; in the right hands, parody can be deep, and while there’s no shortage of sight gags and comedy moments, Outlaw Johnny Black also reflects a genuine earnestness that elevates the whole enterprise. Sure, there’s crash zooms aplenty in a cod-Sergio Leone style, plus crazy bar-room brawls and shoot-outs, but with a hefty 130 minute running time to fill, Outlaw Johnny Black manages to develop a strong storyline which draws ingenuous parallels between the reversed roles of the outlaw and the preacher. There’s also strong support from Anika Noni Rose and Erica Ash, plus a villainous turn from the great Barry Bostwick, an all-time legend based on this clip alone.
Humour is a very individual thing; I get that not everyone laughs at a character named Deacon, Deacon, Deacon who we’re told comes ‘from a long line of Deacons’, but it cracks me up. If anything, Outlaw Johnny Black is too successful in mimicking Western genre tropes; I could have done without a few anxiety-inducing horse-falls in a film that generally maintains a light, unproblematic touch. Outlaw Johnny Black is billed as ‘from the brothers who brought you Black Dynamite’, and that marketing tactic may suggest that Michael Jai White has built up a cult following over the last decade or so. If you can get a hang of his sense of humour, Outlaw Johnny Black is a good example of White’s considerable talent; a MJW trilogy feels like it should be in order here, if only to see more of these slammin’ martial arts skills.