1 of 5 | Outlaw Johnny Black (Michael Jai White) rides into town. Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films
LOS ANGELES, Sept. 15 (UPI) -- Michael Jai White need only showcase his martial arts skills to provide satisfying entertainment, but The Outlaw Johnny Black, in theaters Friday, showcases everything he can do while he exercises new skills, too.
Johnny Black (White) rides into a frontier town to stop Brett Clayton (Chris Browning) from robbing a bank. Before he can, the local sheriff and deputies try to claim the reward on him.
When Johnny makes his escape, the preacher Percival Fairman (Byron Minns) rescues him, though struggles to sell the outlaw on his faith. After an attack by Native Americans, Johnny assumes that Percival is dead and takes his identity in the town of Hope Springs.
Seeing Johnny impersonate a preacher provides some fish-out-of-water comedy, but Percival survives the attack. When Percival arrives in Hope Springs, Johnny threatens him to keep his secret until Johnny can rob the bank and split.
White and Minns also wrote Outlaw Johnny Black. The duo behind Black Dynamite bring their sense of humor to the western genre, but while Dynamite was a satire of blaxploitation, Johnny Black is a straight western -- with comic relief.
Johnny is a heroic outlaw and he speaks a lot more than the Man with No Name. Yes, Johnny wants to rob a bank full of all the church's money, but he also steps in when cowboys bully a Native American, and Johnny doesn't kill innocents in cold blood.
So Johnny has a moral code. It's just a little more flexible than modern, law-abiding society might permit.
The film, which White directed, captures vast desert landscapes and western town squares. It pays homage to spaghetti western titles and music, too.
White still can kick in his cowboy leathers. The film blends White's brand of martial arts with traditional western shootouts and horseback riding.
Though not mocking the genre, this western has a sense of humor. Johnny fumbles through his preacher impersonation with impeccable comic timing. The film also includes jokes about immature double entendres, alternate N words and a profane saloon song.
White and Minns have a sincere take on the church, too. It's a fun farce in which Johnny is blatantly sinning, but of course, the experience of impersonating a preacher will change him enough to show the power of faith.
At more than two hours, Outlaw Johnny Black is closer to the epics of Sergio Leone, but it can drag while it sets up all the pieces of its elaborate plot. There's also a mayor (Barry Bostwick) scheming to get the deed to the church's property.
The plot forces Johnny to play a different character for much of the movie, just after proving how cool Johnny Black is. He does finally resume his true self for the finale.
The costumes look a bit more like dress-up than historical accuracy. Native American tribes definitely aren't wearing animal skins. It's cloth trimmed neatly.
Portraying Native Americans as savage tribes may be a western trope, but it seems incongruous with the film's modern sensibilities about the genre. It is necessary for something to delay Percival and make Johnny assume he's dead, but perhaps that could have been handled more delicately.
To be fair, the film is satirizing the trope of the "Indian" caricature in westerns, but that means the trope is still there.
As ambitious an effort as Outlaw Johnny Black is, so too does it struggle with some of its ambitions. But, it's so much fun that it makes up for occasional missteps with plenty of comedy, action and heart.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.