Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Blues Movie

By Mark Jordan

FEBRUARY 16, 1998:  Going into Blues Brothers 2000, John Landis’ sequel to his 1980 comedy/musical hit The Blues Brothers, you have to wonder why. Why would Landis and star/co-writer Dan Aykroyd risk tampering with the original film’s legacy, not to mention that of original co-star John Belushi, who died in 1982? Two hours and $6.50 later, the reason still isn’t clear, but you have to kind of appreciate that Landis, Aykroyd, and company gave it a shot, even if the film they put on the screen is a pale (actually, sheet-white) imitation of the original.

Blues Brothers 2000 begins with a dedication to Belushi, Cab Calloway, and John Candy, the three original cast members who have died in the interim and whose spirits – especially Belushi’s – are sorely missing from this effort.

It’s 18 years after the events of the first Blues Brothers, and Elwood Blues (Aykroyd), the tall, laconic, harmonica-playing brother, is just getting out of prison and stepping into a world that is very different from the one he remembers. His brother Jake (Belushi) and his surrogate father Curtis (Calloway) are dead, the orphanage he was raised in has itself been razed, and his band has once again scattered. From this familiar beginning, Blues Brothers 2000 follows a story arc similar to the original film’s, as Elwood struggles to put the band back together and travels to compete in voodoo witch Queen Mousette’s (R&B diva Erykah Badu) battle of the bands in the bayous of Louisiana, all the while evading the wrath of the Russian mob, a white separatist group, and every law-enforcement agency from Lake Michigan to the Gulf of Mexico.

Along the way, many of the characters from the original film resurface, including Steve Lawrence as the group’s agent Maury Sline, James Brown as the Reverend Cleophus James, and Aretha Franklin as the mean wife of guitarist Matt Murphy. Kathleen Freeman also makes a return, reprising her hilarious role as the quick-with-the-switch nun Mother Mary Stigmata, who helps introduce Elwood to two of his three new “brothers”: Buster, an orphaned 10-year-old whom Mother Stigmata thinks would make a good protege for Elwood, and Cabel Chamberlain, the illegitimate son of Curtis and a commander in the Illinois State Police.

John Goodman, Dan Aykroyd, J. Evan Bonifant, and Joe Morton in Blues Brothers 2000, John Landis’ pale sequel to his 1980 hit.

Aykroyd has always been a better second banana (or, at best, co-banana) than a lead banana. His best films have always featured him in more of a supporting role, subservient to a more charismatic star like Eddie Murphy (Trading Places) or Bill Murray (Ghostbusters). In the original Blues Brothers, the energetic Belushi was the soloist who moved the film along at a satisfying clip, while Aykroyd provided able and frequently essential support.

But in Blues Brothers 2000, with Belushi now gone, Ackroyd is asked to take the lead, and though he gives it his best, it’s clear that he doesn’t have the chops. It doesn’t help, either, that he gets almost no support from the “new” Blues Brothers. J. Evan Bonifant as Buster is sufficiently cute but little else. And John Goodman, who has been a force to be reckoned with in movies such as Arachnophobia and Barton Fink, is inexplicably tepid as Mighty Mack McTeer, the bartender turned bluesman. That leaves veteran character actor Joe Morton as Cabel to make an impression, and he does, with humor and manic intensity that almost match Belushi’s and by displaying a great singing voice that makes him the best vocalist of all the Blues Brothers.

Music is about the only thing Blues Brothers 2000 does get right on a consistent basis. There are a few gags – Elwood’s use of shaving cream to elude police capture, the most over-the-top car pile-up ever, and a lot of great bits involving the Bluesmobile – but they don’t come nearly often enough.

But the movie’s musical highlights are plentiful. Blues Brothers 2000 does the original better by squeezing in a host of guest shots by some of the blues’, R&B’s, and soul’s greatest performers. Franklin performs her hit “Respect,” soul men Eddie Floyd and Wilson Pickett team with teen guitar phenom Johnny Lang on Floyd’s “634-5789.” Memphian Steve Potts plays drums with a strip-club band that also includes guitarist Lonnie Brooks and the late harp player Junior Wells. And “Blues Boy” B.B. King pops up, selling used government vehicles and, in the movie’s climax, heading probably the greatest all-star blues band ever.

Then there is the Blues Brothers Band itself. Featuring MGs Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn, the BBB get a lot more play this time out, becoming more realized characters in the narrative.

In fact, it’s in watching all these non-actors, obviously having a great time making this movie, that Blues Brothers 2000 finds its sole saving grace. They ham it up and deliver their silly lines with the glee that only natural-born entertainers can muster. So if, ultimately, Blues Brothers turns out to be nothing more than a vanity project, well, at least it’s in service to some people who deserve it. All the same, unless you’re just a hard-core blues lover looking for an all-too-rare screen appearance by these artists, you’re better off just buying the soundtrack, because as a movie Blues Brothers 2000 is a minor-key dud.

For awhile now the speculation has been rampant: Who will be the first performer from Hong Kong’s fertile film industry to “make it big” in America? Actually, that question was probably answered last summer when director John Woo’s Face/Off became a critical and commercial hit. But before the camera, the race is still on.

Chow Yun-Fat in The Replacement Killers.

Jackie Chan has been the front runner for awhile, and Michelle Yeoh made a strong showing recently with her role in the James Bond flick Tomorrow Never Dies. But if I had to place a bet, I’d put my money on Chow Yun-Fat, who is now appearing in his first U.S. release, The Replacement Killers, opposite Mira Sorvino. That’s because unlike the high-kicking, karate-chopping Chan and Yeoh, Yun-Fat’s screen persona, forged through such superior Hong Kong fare as The Killer and Hard Boiled, is already thoroughly entrenched in American mythology. Like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood before him, Yun-Fat specializes in playing the solitary, tortured gunman, cursed with a talent to destroy. And if nothing else, Yun-fat stands a better chance of crossing over to American audiences because they are likely to relate better to his style of shoot-’em-up action. Gun-Fu over Kung-Fu, if you will.

That said, however, The Replacement Killers is not the film that is going to put Yun-Fat over the top. It is a competent thriller, just good enough to give you a taste for more.

Yun-Fat is John Lee, an assassin who has been pressed into service by gangster Terence Wei (Kenneth Tsang); if Lee does not execute Wei’s enemies, his family in China will be killed. This suits Lee, a cold-blooded killer, just fine, until, that is, he’s ordered to kill the young boy of the cop who killed Wei’s own drug-dealing son. When Lee fails to complete the contract, he becomes the target for the replacement killers of the film’s title.

The Replacement Killers is a fine introduction to Yun-Fat, but unfortunately the producers of this film, including his longtime director Woo, couldn’t get him the support he needs.

Sorvino, who plays a freelance document forger who gets unwittingly swept up in the shootout between Lee and his assassins, is ostensibly here either because she has a well-publicized degree in Chinese studies from Harvard or because she is the current girlfriend of known Hong Kong film enthusiast Quentin Tarantino. But as for her character, I have no idea why she’s here. She gets to shoot some folk (hell, everybody gets to shoot somebody) but otherwise she only seems to be around to add a little exposition and dialogue to the proceedings. This hardly seems necessary; though Yun-Fat’s newly acquired English is a little rough, his brooding presence and pained expressions speak volumes.

And while director Antoine Fuqua, best known for Nike commercials and Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” video, brings a great visual flair to the proceedings, this first-time feature director still has to learn a few things about dramatic pacing and continuity. He shows more than enough promise, however, to warrant another shot at a major motion picture.

And Yun-Fat, hopefully, will also make a return to American screens. With goofy wise-asses like Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger still dominating American action films, Yun-Fat’s presence could bring a welcome breath of decorum and humanity to the mayhem.

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