It seems justly appropriate that one of the posthumous films of the late Bernie Mac would team him up with Samuel L. Jackson, a pairing of quick urban comedic wits and unapologetically profane tongues. Their screen chemistry is one of two truly the only compelling reasons to go see Soul Men, a movie with a contrived plot that lacks originality.
Of course the other reason: is it one of the last two feature movies starring Mac who died Aug. 9 at age 50 from complications of pneumonia. Although he will star in one more film - Old Dogs with Robin Williams and John Travolta - due to be released in 2009, Soul Men will go down as Mac's most impressive screen roles among his 28 feature film appearances.
Preeminent actor pairings do not always work, but when it does, it is memorable. The casting of Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker in The Debaters greatly disappointed in that there was only one scene in the otherwise fine movie that the two Academy Award winners engaged each other in dialogue. Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro film projects together have fallen short of expectations. In contrast, one of the greatest cinematic examples of sexual chemistry took place in Bridges of Madison County between Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood.
Soul Men matches the raw comedy presences of Jackson and Mac in the roles of Louis Hinds and Floyd Henderson, two-thirds of a former popular rhythm and blues trio called The Real Deal that disbanded in the 1970s after the other member departed to start a solo career. While the defected member Marcus Hook enjoyed a memorable solo career, Louis' life degenerated into bank robbery pursuits that involved jail time. Meanwhile Mac went into the car wash business and went through several bad marriages. Hooks' death brings about a memorial music tribute that results in an invitation for Louis and Floyd to reunite for a performance and sends them on a road trip to get there.
When it comes to profane urban linguistics, no greater creative fluency can be found than it is in Jackson and Mac. Their propensity for infusing their language with a wide variety of f-bombs and assorted curse words combined with stellar comedic capabilities makes it an intriguing star casting. In Soul Men, their profanity-laced chemistry does not disappoint (unless, of course, such language offends you). It would have truly been a tragic loss for American cinema history if Mac's death had taken place before the film was completed.
The comedic banter between Jackson and Mac is given a sharper, and therefore, funnier edge due to their characters' inherent conflicts and past history with each other. Even predictable road story moments are hilarious, a tribute to their individual comic abilities. An early scene in which Floyd visits a doctor is side-splitting, underlining the comic genius that has been robbed too prematurely by death.
The fact that Jackson and Mac can shoulder the entire movie is a good thing, because otherwise it is far from perfect. However, the director Malcolm D. Lee (Spike Lee's cousin) allows the movie to play to the two protagonists' strengths, which allow him to minimize some of the film's weakness. The most glaring shortcoming is the casting of Adam Hershman as the nerdy white guy music industry intern who is supposed to help the R&B duo get across the country for the tribute. His simpleton awe and admiration of black music is old hat and doesn't add anything to the film.
Another bittersweet element of Soul Men is a couple of brief cameo appearance by R&B singer and actor Issac Hayes, who ironically died the day after Mac. Another brief cameo proves that there is cinema life after porn, as the buxom XXX-star Vanessa Del Rio (now excessively voluptuous) literally fills Floyd's bed and almost smothers him to death with lust as one of his brief love interests early on in the film.
Musically... well, it is Samuel Jackson and Bernie Mac, not Stevie Wonder and Prince. But as Jackson proved in Black Snake Moan, he can give a credible performance as a singer as long as the music does not stretch him too far beyond what he is capable. While that is a saving grace musically for both Jackson and Mac in Soul Men (that is, after the first performance in the movie, which by script design is pretty bad), it also means that the music and their choreography are less than impressive. The later surprise addition (in more ways than one) of a female singer named Cleo (played by Sharon Leal) helps the music somewhat; however, if the expectation is for great music, this is not the film.
As the credits roll on one side of the screen at the movie's end, a wonderful tribute to Bernie Mac is presented on the other side that includes past clips and interviews of the late comic.
The 103-minute film is rated R for sensuality and replete profanity.