Outlaw Johnny Black: the spiritual sequel to Black Dynamite

Outlaw Johnny Black is one of the most intriguing new movies of 2023, with a Western setting that introduces elements like comedy, adventure, and martial arts to hopefully provide something new and fresh. Will it be a success and is there a chance that it creates a new genre where the classic Western formula goes in unexpected new directions?

The classic appeal of Westerns

Most Westerns feature a brooding hero and may include tropes like bounty hunting, corrupt sheriffs, and settlers terrorised by bandits. There have been interesting films that have taken the basic Western and added humour, such as Blazing Saddles and Bandidos. 1999’s Wild Wild West starring Will Smith added a steampunk theme and futuristic weapons, but it was a commercial flop as well as being panned by the majority of critics.

The classic imagery from Westerns has become so ingrained in pop culture that it’s easy to recognise in a variety of settings. We can spot the Western theme reaching online casino games as an example, with cowboys and sheriffs common in slots. This is just one of the many diverse themes used in casino slots and remains enduringly popular. The list of games at https://bingo.paddypower.com/c/bingo-slots includes Payday Express by Fantasma, which is set in the desert and includes many of the characters and objects you’d expect from this genre.

The heyday of Western movies arrived in the 1950s and 60s, with big releases less frequent in recent years. However, there has been a regular flow of new TV series based on the Wild West, with recent examples including 1923 staring Helen Mirren and Harrison Ford, as well as John Brolin’s Outer Range which added a sci-fi sheen to the Western setting and is described in the review at https://theguardian.com/tv-and-radio as a “maddening mystery”.

Will Outlaw Johnny Black make a big impression?

As we’ve seen, there have been attempts before now to make Westerns that don’t fit the classic tropes, so where does this film fit in? The plot is based on the adventures of a man called Johnny Black (played by Michael Jai White), who has sworn to get revenge by killing Brett Clayton (Chris Browning), but by doing so becomes an outlaw who has to go into hiding. 

The story sounds similar to many traditional Westerns from the past, but the trailer reveals a strong sense of comedy together with wacky fight scenes. Michael Jai White is the director and co-producer as well as starring in the leading role and co-writing the script. He was behind Black Dynamite, which was well-received by critics such as https://rogerebert.com/reviews and has become a cult classic. Since Outlaw Johnny Black has been described as a spiritual sequel to Black Dynamite, hopes are high for it among fans of the earlier movie.

Rather than creating a new genre, perhaps this film is best viewed as being the latest attempt to take Westerns in a new direction. It follows on from several other movies that have added comedy scenes and unexpected characters to this genre, so it could be seen as a natural progression and we can probably expect to see Westerns going in other new directions regardless of how successful this release is.