Mac plays Floyd Henderson, a present-day car-wash mogul who, back in the 1970s, was an R&B backup singer alongside a fellow named Louis Hinds (Samuel L. Jackson). They sang and danced behind Marcus Hooks (John Legend), who one day took off without so much as a goodbye. On his own, Marcus became a funk-soul god (think James Brown), leaving Floyd and Louis to part as bitter enemies after their one and only album together tanked.
After 20 years of no contact, Floyd bursts into Louis' fleabag L.A. apartment with a plan for the two men to drive to New York and perform at an Apollo Theater tribute show for Marcus, whose sudden death hasn't exactly wrecked his former band mates. "I'm cryin' the tears of a motherfuckin' clown," Louis declares before booting Floyd out the door, which gives director Malcolm Lee the chance to plant his camera at the end of the hallway and observe Mac as he goes off on a vintage comic tear. Stalking back and forth, moving in and out of camera range, mumbling and cursing like a sailor, Floyd is a funny, frantic mess. But the memorable, oddly moving thing about the scene is the sense one gets that Mac, as he paces and riffs, is conjuring forth his original comic self, the one that existed before a hit sitcom made him respectable and family-friendly. In that dimly lit hallway, the raspy-voiced, gleefully profane Original King of Comedy returns.
Louis, of course, finally opens the door, and the duo hits the road in Floyd's lime-green El Dorado convertible. They bicker, get stranded, and eventually start staging their old act in dive bars. Dressed in pimpadelic blue suits with white striping that Floyd has saved all these years, they slip into a version of "Boogie Ain't Nuttin' (But Gettin' Down)." Their voices are ragged, but the old-school hand gestures and side-shuffle footwork is mighty fine. Is anyone surprised that Samuel L. Jackson can move as smoothly as he curses?
When Louis steps off the stage in an Amarillo bar and glides right on into a country-Western line dance, the moment should be iconic — tough guys do dance — but director Lee doesn't appear to be feeling the joy. He holds back, literally keeping the camera from fully entering the dance, and so the scene fails to soar. In films such as Undercover Brother and Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, Lee has displayed a gift for working with actors — among other things, he really knows how to ratchet up the comic pitch of an argument — but his visual style rarely matches the energy level of his performers. If the sight of Jackson doing a Texas two-step excites this director, it doesn't show.
Soul Men dulls out in the home stretch, as screenwriters Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone (Man of the House, Life) employ increasingly silly side turns to delay Floyd and Louis' arrival at the Apollo. But no matter: Mac and Jackson get us there, and then come the end credits, for which Lee has assembled a surprisingly long, and quite lovely, tribute not only to Mac but to real-life soul man Isaac Hayes, who has a brief cameo in the film and who died this summer, one day after the comedian.
"You want to leave a lasting impression on your audience," Bernie Mac says in an on-set interview, after which we see him working the crowd that turned up to be extras in the Apollo Theater sequence. He tells a risqué joke; he gives a stagehand a hard time; he entertains. Being an extra is a thankless job, but those lucky folks, you gotta figure, will be re-telling Mac jokes for the rest of their days.