By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
Comedy lost a warrior when Bernie Mac died in August, a hilariously aggressive voice of reason who could scare audiences into laughing.
Mac was a true original, more "street" than most of his peers, even when he went mainstream in a sitcom and the Ocean's Eleven trilogy. Richard Pryor was wiser, and Eddie Murphy smoother, but Bernie Mac was the rare comedian as cuddly as he was abrasive.
He deserves a better swan song than Soul Men, a ragged Blues Brothers rip-off mostly relying on shock gags. Remove the persistent f-words and variations thereof from the screenplay and Malcolm D. Lee's movie would be shorter, less funny and exposed as cheap jokes pushed too far.
Mac plays Floyd Henderson, one-third of the Real Deal trio successfully blending Philly, Memphis and Motown rhythms in their day. That day is long gone, after lead singer Marcus Hooks (John Legend) split for a solo career. Marcus dies onstage, and a tribute is planned for New York's famed Apollo Theater. Floyd must persuade his former partner and ex-convict Louis Hinds (Samuel L. Jackson) to reunite in Marcus' memory.
The quest sets up a drive-by-numbers road trip taking Floyd and Louis from Arizona to Harlem, with stops along the way to brush up their act for Texas cowpokes and unappreciative drunks. Meanwhile they argue about wives they shared, women they're picking up and the benefits/pitfalls of Viagra. Nothing fresh, although few actors swap profane snaps like Mac and Jackson.
Strapped for cash, the pair visits the home of a former mutual flame, where her daughter Cleo (Sharon Leal) informs them she has died. Cleo's age suggests that either might be her father and both protect her from an abusive boyfriend (Affion Crockett). She can also sing, so the climax is predictable.
Soul Men is fun when Floyd and Louis perform, with Mac and Jackson compensating for their average voices with sheer exuberance and dance-step doubles. It's superstar karaoke, with juvenile sex jokes thrown in.
But any laughter is bittersweet, knowing Mac has only one more chance (2009's Old Dogs) to prove the comedic skills that made him a star. Music icon Isaac Hayes' cameo as himself deepens that regret since in an eerie coincidence he died two days after Mac. Soul Men is a morbid footnote to their careers.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.