Undercover Brother

Published: Friday, May 31 2002 7:33 a.m. MDT

Tooling around town in his Caddy, Big Gulp in hand, Parliament Funkadelic blaring from the stereo, the title character of "Undercover Brother" exudes retro-cool, the kind of laid-back ghetto elan not seen onscreen since the "blaxploitation" era.

Well, actually, it has been seen. "The Ladies Man," "Pootie Tang" and "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka" all parodied the look and style and (in "Sucka's" case) the plots of blaxploitation movies. Those films had their funny bits (barely), but they can't touch this.

As unlikely as it seems, "Undercover Brother" may be the funniest, smartest youth-oriented comedy so far this year. (And considering the summer's upcoming comic highlights are sequels to the worn-out "Austin Powers" and "Men in Black" movies, "Brother" may reign as the funniest for a while to come.)

Eddie Griffin plays the title role, an afro-ed, platform shoes-wearing, kung fu-fighting brother with a social conscience who unwittingly stumbles into the path of the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., a top-secret organization dedicated to fighting the Man, the shadowy figure behind myriad conspiracies to keep African-Americans down. Brother becomes the organization's secret agent.

It's based on an online comic character created by John Ridley, an accomplished novelist and screenwriter ("Three Kings," "U Turn"), who co-wrote the "Undercover Brother" script.

The B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. springs into action when the Man — on a campaign to keep the White House white — drugs Gen. Warren Boutwell (Billy Dee Williams), a black political figure based on Colin Powell. Expected to run for president, Boutwell instead calls a press conference to announce he's opening a chain of fried-chicken restaurants. The chicken will be the delivery mechanism for drugs that will turn black people into virtual zombies.

Griffin is a protean comic who, unfortunately, has appeared in some execrable movies. He got hired for "Brother" on the heels of playing the buffoon in last year's "Double Take." On the set of that film, he was a revelation: a tireless mimic, endlessly inventive, with an agile comic mind. Onscreen, however, he was a strutting bundle of offensive stereotypes.

"Undercover Brother" at first seems like more of the same, but every broad stereotype and discomfiting joke carries the sting of truth.

The film's shortness (86 minutes) is a plus. Ridley and co-writer Michael McCullers start to run out of inventiveness halfway through and, instead of burrowing more deeply into its ideas, the movie starts to repeat itself.

"Undercover Brother" is rated PG-13 for occasional use of strong profanity, crude sexual humor, slapstick violence (including hand-to-hand combat), some drug content and use of racial epithets. Running time: 86 minutes.