Sorry John Wick, ‘Bad Black’ Is the Best Action Film in Theaters Right Now
Action fans are celebrating the release of John Wick: Chapter 3, the latest in installment in the heady, headshot-heavy film series, and rightfully so. But I’ve seen the real future of action movies, and it doesn’t star Keanu Reeves. It stars Wesley Snipes.
(Not that Wesley Snipes. This Wesley Snipes is a little kid who knows kung fu and lives in Uganda.)
He is one of the featured performers in Bad Black, a riotous, joyful, thrilling action movie from a brilliant Ugandan filmmaker named Nabwana Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey. Nabwana, who produces, writes, and directs his work, has been churning out no-budget DIY action movies for well over a decade. After the trailers for some of his films —collectively dubbed “Wakaliwood,” a portmanteau of Hollywood and Nabwana’s hometown of Wakaliga — went viral on YouTube, his movies began playing international film festivals. Bad Black, which won several awards at Fantastic Fest in 2016, is currently on a national tour of arthouses around the country (including a screening at the Museum of Modern Art earlier this week) ahead of its debut on Blu-ray next month.
Although Bad Black’s effects are undeniably crude, this is not a Tommy Wiseau-esque comedy of errors. Bad Black is like a shot of pure adrenaline jabbed straight into your heart. Nabwana opens with an epic 10-minute chase and shootout through the streets of Wakaliga, and the action rarely lets up for the next hour. The editing is frenetic but clear, the stunts are impressively athletic, the details of life in Uganda are fascinating, and the obvious glee of everyone involved is absolutely infectious. It’s simply one of the most pleasurable times I’ve ever had at this movies. In other words, this thing isn’t so bad it’s good — it’s so great it’s Bad Black.
When Bad Black screened at the Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn this week, it played with what’s called a “VJ track,” an amazing cinematic innovation from Uganda. When the country first began getting movies from the West, they were typically shown with a local storyteller explaining the story to accommodate for the lack of subtitles. Eventually, that role became codified as the “video joker.” Part narrator, part Mystery Science Theater 3000, part hype man, the VJ makes an already entertaining movie a thousand times more fun. The track on Bad Black by VJ Emmie — a self-described master of “tongue fu” — is filled with helpful explanations of local culture, sly nods at technical gaffes, witty one-liners (when a once peaceful village doctor becomes a brutal vigilante, Emmie quips “This doctor needs borders!”) and unabashed fanboy enthusiasm. At one point he gleefully declares we are witnessing a “love story” then pauses and adds “Love of action!”
Joke or not, Bad Black truly is a work of movie love. Nabwana is clearly a devotee of ’80s action, and he filled the film with affectionate nods to his favorites, like a hero named “Swaz” after Arnold Schwarzenegger. At our screening, the producer passed around one of the props used in the film, a comically oversized machine gun. The bullets on the attached ammo belt, which looked plenty real on the big-screen, were individually carved out of wood. If that’s not evidence of a love of action, I don’t know what is.
Bad Black is a reminder that you don’t need high-def cameras or computer effects to make a great action movie. In fact, it suggests the opposite might be true; Bad Black has an immediacy and intensity slicker blockbusters lack. It has the handmade quality (not to mention the slightly reckless whatever-it-takes attitude) of silent film, plot twists that would make M. Night Shyamalan weep with envy, and bigger laughs than any American comedy made in the last five years. It announces Nabwana as a major new filmmaker. And I want VJ Emmie to talk over every movie from now until the end of time.
The Wakaliwood 2019 tour continues through the end of May; to find a screening near you, visit their website. The Bad Black Blu-ray, which also includes another Wakaliwood feature, Who Killed Captain Alex?, will be available on June 11. Here’s the complete opening sequence of the movie, complete with VJ Emmie commentary
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