James Brown's acting oeuvre will never be remembered for the singing star's versatility. In every cinematic escapade - whether it's his fondly remembered role as a soulful preacher in The Blues Brothers or as the funky bandleader in the best-forgotten Doctor Detroit - Mr. Brown essentially has played himself.
But that's quite a character.
In Beat the Devil, the latest slyly disguised promotion from BMW, Mr. Brown embraces that role, indulging in a bit of revisionist history that involves a saucy Satan, played with scene-stealing fervor by British thespian Gary Oldman, a sold soul and a drag race down the Vegas strip.
The thing to remember about Beat the Devil, as well as the half-dozen BMW films that preceded it, is that although selling cars is part of the ploy, they always stand up as objets d'art as well. And just as other installments have been directed by A-list talents such as Ang Lee (The Ice Storm and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), John Woo (Face/Off and Mission:Impossible 2) and Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch), Beat the Devil was helmed by a Hollywood heavyweight, super-stylist Tony Scott (Top Gun, and last year's Spy Game).
The blink-and-you'll-miss-it film format dictated by BMW is a natural fit for Mr. Scott. His quick, bright style, full of jump cuts and hand-held kinetics, lends a sense of urgency to the proceedings. In the film, Mr. Brown is gambling for his soul, and Mr. Scott's distinctive style sends the viewer careening through the proceedings.
But it is the two stars, the soul legend and the loopy Lucifer to whom the film owes its success. Mr. Brown's portrayal of, well, Mr. Brown is colored with just enough self-awareness and sense of parody to make it effective. Mr. Oldman's rock-loving, spandex-clad diva-devil plays in perfect counterpoint to Mr. Brown's natural flash. Reminiscent of his star-making roll as Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy, Mr. Oldman offers a picture-perfect portrait of excess, sans tragic truths.
Most refreshing is the secondary role the car, a sleek BMW 2003 Z4 roadster, plays in the film. Yes, there is a breathtaking dash down the Las Vegas strip, but the camera uses the race as an opportunity to explore characters under stress rather than the expected auto erotica.
And that, to paraphrase the Godfather himself, feels good.
Beat the Devil, starring James Brown, Gary Oldman and Clive Owens, and directed by Tony Scott, premiers on BMWfilms.com Nov. 21.
Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or firstname.lastname@example.org