Outlaw Johnny Black
Michael Jai White's Western spoof is mostly "Dynamite."
Film Yap is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
As a fan of writer/producer/director/star Michael Jai White, Westerns and White’s prior genre sendup “Black Dynamite,” it feels as though “Outlaw Johnny Black” (now in theaters) was tailor-made for me. Thankfully, it mostly hits its mark.
Young Johnny Black (Jalyn Hall, he played Emmett Till in “Till” – this movie must’ve sat on a shelf for a hot minute as Hall looks markedly younger here despite that film coming out almost a year ago) lost his trick-shooting, preacher Pops Bullseye Black (aces character actor Glynn Turman) at the hands of roving outlaw Brett Clayton (Chris Browning). Now grown (and played by White), Johnny himself has become an outlaw and still vows vengeance against Clayton.
On the run from authorities in the form of Bill Basset (Randy Couture), Johnny assumes the identity of his acquaintance Reverend Percy (Byron Minns, who co-wrote alongside White as he did on “Black Dynamite”) – whom he thought perished in an “Injun” attack – and sets up shop in Hope Springs.
It’s here that he connects with Percy’s pen pal and burgeoning romantic interest Bessie Lee (“Mad TV” alum Erica Ash) and her educated, strong-willed sister Jessie Lee (Anika Noni Rose). U.S. Marshall Cove (Kevin Chapman) justifiably questions Johnny/Percy’s religious bonafides. Johnny and Jessie Lee, between longing glances, begin butting heads with local land baron Tom Sheally (Barry Bostwick). A frustrated Sheally becomes desperate enough that he’s willing to employ rough riders – Clayton among them – to drive the people of Hope Springs from their home.
“Outlaw Johnny Black” doesn’t quite hit the heights of “Black Dynamite” as that flick is leaner and meaner than this one (84 minutes and R-rated as opposed to 135 minutes and PG-13), but this still works and is a good bit of fun as both a Western and a comedy. I understand why White went lengthier with his runtime (he’s attempting to ape the likes of Sergio Leone … the opening credits make this abundantly clear), but the picture would’ve played better were it 30 minutes shorter.
White wears his influences on his sleeve. He’s very much tipping his cowboy hat to the Blaxploitation Westerns of the 1960s and 1970s starring the late Jim Brown and Fred Williamson (both men cameo during the conclusion). White’s also holding a candle for Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” (Black’s wanted poster humorously features Cleavon Little’s Bart, a character punches out a horse).
There are a lot of curious elements at play with “Outlaw Johnny Black.” It’s both progressive and unapologetically un-PC. It simultaneously spoofs and embraces religion. It’s a wonder how White’s Black athletically spin kicks suckaz whilst wearing tighter than tight black leather pants.
Fans of “Black Dynamite,” Westerns and White could do a lot worse than the “Outlaw Johnny Black” as it’s got plenty of laughs, cool gunfights and a surprising amount of martial arts action (not so surprising I suppose as White holds black belts in seven different disciplines). It’s also a reminder that sometimes less is more.