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Doug Hyun/Dimension Films, 2008
SOUL POWER: Bernie Mac, Isaac Hayes and Samuel L. Jackson relive their musical youth in 'Soul Men.'

Blues Brothers

'Soul Men' Bernie Mac and Samuel L. compete in an epic swear-off

By Richard von Busack

EVERYONE drops F-bombs onscreen, but who can really make them detonate? Soul Men isn't much of a movie, but early on, the late Bernie Mac and Samuel L. Jackson get in each other's face. I found myself trying to laugh silently (a painful exercise) so I didn't miss a word. The general use of Jackson is to get him into a place where he'll be provoked, so he can swear his head off. He goes toe to toe with Mac, who wasn't afraid of invective, but tries to be more urbane. He calls Jackson "despicable," as Daffy Duck would have done.

The premise is that the two are aging backup singers, two-thirds of Marcus Hooks and the Real Deal, "the only band that got to do three songs on Soul Train." Their hit was a version of James and Bobby Purify's "I'm Your Puppet" (still in heavy rotation in east San Jose, that tune). Hooks (played by John Legend) went off to fame and left the others behind. Mac's Floyd made a fortune in a chain of car washes, and he has retired to a San Fernando Valley suburb where he's dying slowly of boredom: golf, masturbation at 3:41am, tranquilizers. He gets picked up by a neighbor, played by the mountainous vintage porn star Vanessa del Rio, who tries to press him to death. Meanwhile, Louis (Jackson) is an ex-con who became a garage mechanic. When Hooks dies suddenly, the two reunite to play the tribute concert. They drive cross-country to the Apollo Theater, squabbling every mile. On the way, they pick up Cleo (the lovely and not too melisma-addicted soul singer Sharon Leal), whom they rescue from her no-account boyfriend (Affion Crockett).

Despite the fine soundtrack by Stanley Clarke, director Malcolm D. Lee didn't understand the wisdom of this "Hey, let's put on a show!" movie. For example, he has the late Isaac Hayes (playing himself) onscreen without getting him to perform a song. And as Mac and Jackson aren't great dancers, he goes to the legs of stunt doubles hoping we won't care.

Maybe we don't. We get the last of Mac, who now seems now to have been one of the great comedians of his age. Mac excelled at the verbal thrust, as well as a vaudeville grimace called "The Skull": the paralyzed-by-cobra-venom bulge of the eyes when provoked by disrespect, rage or terror. Who could forget the symphony of intonations Mac got out of the single word "half" in the heart-warming holiday classic Bad Santa? Louis, who got philosophy from his time in the joint, says, "From the first slap and cry/ We all start to die." So be it, but I sense immortality in a Texas scene in this movie, where Mac's Floyd helps himself to a leathery female fan. As the fan, Jennifer Coolidge is a scream, even across the room waving coyly at the bandstand. Up closer, she teases Floyd with her dismaying physique before getting far, far more down and dirty. Tina Fey was too nice to Sarah Palin. Coolidge would have been the one to get the Moosenator's cushy smile and steamroller Zen; aside from that resemblance, Coolidge has the guts to go up for some really ultralow humor. For this she deserves as much R-E-S-P-E-C-T as the late lamented Mac and the happily alive Samuel L.

Movie TimesSOUL MEN (R; 98 min.), directed by Malcolm Lee, written by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, photographed by Matthew F. Leonetti and starring Bernie Mac, Samuel L. Jackson and Isaac Hayes, opens Nov. 7.

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