Review: Luke Cage (Season 1, Episode 1)

Let me start off by saying the quasi-blaxploitation theme of Luke Cage is glorious (Isaac Hayes is sorely missed for the baritone vocals) and the landmarks of the Apollo Theater and Malcolm X Boulevard add to the African-American heritage of the show. Paul McGuigan is a frolicsome choice for the director of the first two episodes since he made the alternative, gritty and underrated superpower picture Push back in 2009.

Like a gunslinger from a spaghetti western, Luke Cage (Mike Colter) stoically walks around and does custodial duties at Pop’s Barbershop in an effort to keep a low profile. At his breaking point, Luke is taunted by a patron and he is a Shaft-like compass for the ladies’ affections. Colter wrangles the silky smoothness of Fred Williamson and the robust brawn of Carl Weathers. Richard Roundtree would be envious of his bedroom prowess.

In acknowledgement of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Henry Hunter suggests”you should be out there helping people like those other brothers downtown” and in a streetwise viewpoint of The Avengers, a vendor is selling bootlegs of “the incident” involving the S.H.I.E.L.D. representatives. The easter egg about Justin Hammer’s hardware will satiate fans who cherish juxtaposition.

Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali) is a hoodlum in the countenance of Bumpy Johnson and while I’m sure his liberal use of “nigger” will enrage Spike Lee, it macadamizes the Netflix series in Harlem verisimilitude. Ali is a luxuriating villain but he is a Spartan, white-collar suit and doesn’t possess the wallflower facets of Fisk or the illusory manipulation of Kilgrave. He is primarily driven by illicit junkyard exchanges, May-December promiscuity and debtor’s greed. The framed picture of Notorious B.I.G. on his wall is a diabolical piece of set dressing.

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It’s a blistering graphic novel under the stranglehold of Bill Duke with gangland shootouts and blood feuds. Despite their considerable efforts, the bare-knuckle beating by Stokes under a crimson light gel is not as shocking as Fisk’s pulverization with a car door in Daredevil Season 1. I usually like weaselly character actor Frank Whaley but he is too asinine in the role of the doltish police officer who scoffs at Benjamin Franklin because he wasn’t a US president.

I did savor how Cage is a lumbering tank who deflects wrists off his face and gnarls bullets with his fist. His pace is molasses-slow but his superpower is not Bruce Lee velocity; it’s impenetrable armor. He doesn’t outflank, he doesn’t even tussle. With the sideways toss of his hand, he can whirl henchmen through a window. He does the damage of the Tasmanian devil without the speed.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5

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