Blu-ray Review: Black Sheep (1996)

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As a child growing up in suburbia, my first two “film professors” were none other than Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel who-- week in and week out-- celebrated the best in movies and called out the worst with their thumbs up and thumbs down rating system until they announced with the great show-ending tag-line that their famous balcony was closed.

While ABC still runs a version of the show in the vein of the original-- the juvenile, uneducated views espoused on today's hype machine that is At the Movies cannot even begin to hold a candle to the original and I feel bad for young film buffs who will turn for guidance to “critics” like Ben Lyons (whose name and similar enthusiastic quotes seems to appear on 90% of new release boxes and posters).

And while of course unfortunately Mr. Siskel passed away in the late '90s and I never quite warmed to his replacement Mr. Richard Roeper and sadly Mr. Ebert has lost the usage of his voice-- fortunately his prolific review writing still astonishes and he's still my favorite "professor."

Yet, despite my reverence for what was my earliest (and far less expensive) version of film school, I was amazed to discover while researching Wayne's World director Penelope Spheeris' release of the 1996 film Black Sheep which just hit Blu-ray thanks to Paramount Home Entertainment that the Chris Farley and David Spade vehicle was one of only two films that critic Gene Siskel actually walked out of in more than two decades of reviewing movies in his entire career.

His whole career? Not Toys with Robin Williams, a number of horrible Madonna movies, or crazy slasher films but Black Sheep-- no folks, Black Sheep was the one that pushed him over the edge. However, then again, I guess I should just shrug it off as he's a brilliant critic and one whose taste runs the gamut which was particularly evident after I learned this very same week that his favorite film of all time was one I could hardly bear to watch myself-- Saturday Night Fever.

When I dug a little deeper, I realized that Siskel was never a fan of Chris Farley's and understand that sometimes people just rub you the wrong way as a good and highly educated friend is irrationally unable to stand Will Ferrell because he feels he's watching former President George W. Bush.

And while I admit that comically it's less successful than their previous hit Tommy Boy which was also released to Blu in late 2008 and essentially one could-- as many critics did-- argue that Sheep's basically an 86 minute live-action cartoon that mines a great deal of humor from it's predecessor, surely it's pretty harmless as a film. Moreover, I'm not sure what moment would have seemed so unbearable as to drive someone out into the lobby. Perhaps it's just Farley phobia like my pal who suffers from Ferrell phobia.

Yes, okay I grant that gags are repeated to detrimental effect as Farley's lovable klutz Mike Donnelly fumbles every attempt to help his brother Al get elected as the governor of Washington state. And predictably a running joke that occurs (as Farley excelled at physical humor) found either a body part or a piece of clothing stuck in something painful like a hand in a hood, clothes in a car trunk or on a small airplane that made you laugh the first time but felt a bit like watching too many Keystone Cops shorts in a row by the end.

Still, it's familiar comfort food for fans of the pair as David Spade plays the same cynically sarcastic character he nailed so well throughout the '90s as the guy hired to keep a strong eye on Mike for preventative damage control in a film that's all in good fun.

In doing so, screenwriter Fred Wolf employs what can now be identified as the traditional SNL movie plot about a goofy outsider who makes a series of misguided attempts to help save the family whether it's Sandler trying to inherit the business in Billy Madison, help his grandmother in Happy Gilmore, Farley trying to salvage his father's automotive parts company in Tommy Boy or in Wolf's recent Strange Wilderness, Steve Zahn trying to keep his father's beloved wildlife show on the air.

After Mike is set up by crooked henchmen working for the two-faced incumbent Governor Tracy (in a wicked turn by Christine Ebersole)-- much like Tommy Boy-- Farley and Spade hit the road but instead of a Planes, Trains, and Automobiles style tour of the Midwest complete with that film's wonderful car sing-along number, they end up in crazy backwoods "Opie" country in a part of Washington that gives off a distinctly Deliverance vibe.

Thankfully in lieu of being forced to "squeal like a pig," they meet the crazed veteran loose cannon played by a pitch-perfect Gary Busey (whom Spade had already crossed paths with in the beginning) and despite a few tired Strange Wilderness styled nature gags and too-close-for-comfort encounters with creepy crawlies, one of the comical high-points is when Farley high-tails it out of the boonies to try and catch up with his brother at an MTV Rock the Vote rally.

Giving Farley (and two of his real life brothers) a chance to play the same security guard like character who gets far too much pleasure out of exerting even the tiniest amount of authority (a la Saturday Night Live), it uses one of Wolf's other favorite devices aside from critters in the form of accidental highs (again both are used throughout Strange Wilderness too).

After an unfortunate contact high that occurs when Farley's Mike parties backstage with some pot-smoking Rastafari and engages in a nonsensical “Kill Whitey!” rant onstage (wherein he's mistaken for the candidate Al Donnelly), you can't help but laugh uncontrollably at Farley's command at physical humor. Of course, following this stunt, predictably he's at even further odds with his brother.

To this end, soon Mike and Spade's Steve try to save the day, with a little help from their buddy's nitrous oxide boosters hooked up to his police cruiser he lets them use. And you guessed it-- after the oxide tanks leak and they find themselves buzzed again in a hilariously off-the-wall sequence as the men are pulled over by another police officer--the film continues down the path of off-the-wall, bloated slapstick antics some of which are a hit and others miss their target with a resounding thud.

However, the important thing is, the jokes come at such a fast pace and instinctively we're already on Farley's side as soon as the movie begins so it keeps us watching right until the overdone but wacky ending that again seems to borrow both from vintage cartoons and old slapstick routines found in silent movies including a few nods to Chaplin (see photo below), Keaton, and Lloyd from the duo who were essentially the Laurel and Hardy of the '90s.

While it's still a second rate work next to Tommy Boy and feels a bit like an unimaginative near-sequel due to the similarities (yet you must give Ebersole some credit for being an even better villain than Wayne's World and SNL go-to man Rob Lowe), it's definitely not one that you'll find yourself with the overwhelming urge to walk out on... unless Tommy Boy is playing in another room.

High-quality Blu-ray transfer with above average picture and sound quality that makes a vast improvement from the TV source I was mostly familiar with for the picture-- although it's missing any extra features (and man, do I wish there'd been a Busey outtake reel), it's another fine Blu-ray from Paramount.

Moreover, when you're in the company of Spade and Farley and realize that they that wanted nothing more than to keep you and them laughing-- all the while, understanding you know they're not taking themselves seriously in the slightest-- you can't help but smile in '90s nostalgia whether you just simply ignore the millionth time Farley gets caught on an object or burst out laughing as Farley tries to fast-talk his way out of a ticket only to realize he was driving seven miles an hour.