19 July 2004 | isleworld-1
Mindless contemporary blaxploitation lacks heart, soul
Even at its mindless worst, blaxploitation usually had heart as well as soul. Those hearts often subscribed to whacked out conspiracy theories that linked anyone who even knew a white person to the Aryan Brotherhood and high unemployment rates. Nonetheless, the intent was good even as things got preachy and patently absurd.
Most contemporary attempts at blaxploitation can't make the pivot from being logically impaired to also being a worthy movie. A recent example is Return of Fire.
This film even has the requisite cheesiness required of a great blaxploitation flick. Among the howlers: post-production additions of ferocious growls to a faux guard dog that is plainly wagging its tail and trying to lick everyone in sight. The neo-soul score is incongruously upbeat. Nick Ashford of the famed Ashford and Simpson duet appears as the title character Fire's mentor. If that weren't funny enough, Ashford looks exactly like Eddie Murphy in Vampire in Brooklyn. Robert Klein, who reputedly said something funny once or twice during the Seventies, has a needless role added only to boost the film's faded star power.
These and like moments should portend a great B-movie. Yet low budget charm alone can't save this film.
The story engenders no sympathy in the hero, Fire, portrayed as well as possible by Paul Campbell. The plot is, on the surface, formulaic blaxploitation. The Man sent Fire to prison for a crime he didn't commit. Fire is released and finds his best friend (the Sopranos' Federico Castelluccio ) not only set him up but now beds his lady, Karen Williams from "Law and Order". Guns sound, people die, and Fire gets the girl. It should work but fails miserably because the main characters remain strangers at film's end.
Director Aleta Chappelle simply lacks the skilled shamelessness of a Jack Hill or Gordon Parks required to overcome a bad script and a tiny budget. In the final analysis, Fire is just another low rent gangster with a high body count. A little less focus on washed out singers and more self-righteous melodrama about Fire's plight and this could have worked. As it is, Return of Fire is as bereft of humanity as it is devoid of intelligence.