John Shaft was an asshole to the only one presumably capable of understanding him (his womaaaan), but at least his job of private investigator held pretenses to a profession beyond pushing drugs. In the following year, the iconic, incendiary blaxploitation classic Super Fly forced no such heroism or righteousness on its protagonist, cocaine dealer Youngblood Priest. Save its killer Curtis Mayfield soundtrack — for which the lethargic first half is oftentimes a mere delivery system — Super Fly staunchly refuses and rejects anything beyond large, weary truths about urban marginalization and desperation.
“It’s a rotten game, but it’s the only one the Man left for us to play.” Spoken by Priest’s hothead sidekick Eddie — the best character in both the original and SuperFly, Sony’s remount — those words resonate with purpose and vitriol even when the narrative momentum recedes.
Super Fly ends with Priest out of the hustle, as is his wish, but at considerable cost and by entering into a larger game than he can conceivably run himself. It emphasizes the ephemeral nature of how antiheroes like Priest define “success” … and the eternal stench of bureaucratic rot above which they can never truly rise. It’s about what he must lose to live.
The new SuperFly is more about how much Priest can escape to Montenegro with and making sure people’s hands don’t cover the Sony logos on all those phones. In its best moments, it’s a film made by people who catch a whiff of today’s overwhelming stink in the air. Too often, it’s SuperFly as superhero, told from the perspective of someone who looked at the original movie’s poster and thought it looked cool. (More percussive and less persuasive, the soundtrack here comes from rapper Future … with a few Mayfield echoes.)
Although more intermittently entertaining than its predecessor — namely in a luxury car chase that ends with amusingly explosive middle-finger defiance to decrepitude cheered on by this country’s cretins — it’s as cinematically and thematically anonymous as you’d expect of a filmmaker named Director X.
The screenplay here, by Alex Tse, relocates Priest from Harlem to the more chic, contemporary Atlanta. Dominating the cocaine trade in a city rather than a neighborhood seems harder to keep quiet from those who would so quickly rip it from his hands. But SuperFly pretends like most cops and politicos (including a mayor played by Antwan “Big Boi” Patton) are somehow unaware of Priest’s activities.
A metrosexual cross between the Weeknd and Morris Day (at whose flashy-style expense a good joke is made), Priest is played by Trevor Jackson — terrific in the second season of ABC’s American Crime and relegated here to sufficient sturdiness and studliness. Yeah, Priest makes love to multiple women — in the shower, all at once, in slow motion — but it’s always emotionally and physically consensual. Priest’s paramours take action on their own behalf, too, and capably so. But make no mistake: SuperFly still has plenty of room for depressing “chickenhead” stereotyping among other female characters.
Although he seems supernaturally able to dodge bullets like Neo, Priest wants to ensure the opening scene’s events are the last time someone guns for him. (When a bystander is injured, Priest applies a tourniquet by way of a tightly wound wad of Benjamins.) His plan: Multiply the supply from his mentor, Scatter (Michael Kenneth Williams), flood the entire southern U.S. and cash out. Eddie (Jason Mitchell) can’t fathom leaving the life, but he agrees to the plan. Scatter? Not so much. However, the cartel consents, the drugs and cash come rolling in, and then, complications.
In 1972, Priest had only dirty cops revealed as regulators of the drug trade with whom to contend. Here, here’s trying to get over … well, more villains than a ’90s comic-book movie. There are just two corrupt officers here (Jennifer Morrison and Brian Durkin) — one of whom murders a member of Priest’s crew in cold blood. One step forward for addressing racially motivated police brutality in summer entertainment, two steps back for copping out on its consequences. Then, the cartel itself (represented by Esai Morales, essentially re-upping his Ozark role), from whom snitches get … well, something more biologically debilitating than stitches. Now a jiu-jitsu practitioner, Scatter is none too pleased about Priest going over his head and perfectly capable of handling physical business. Williams, Morales, Morrison and Durkin generally saunter in for brief moments of scenery-chewing menace, then retreat until we need to be reminded that they’re still lurking somewhere on the fringes.
Meanwhile, Eddie isn’t sure why Priest can hop about town with conspicuous flash while he gets dressed down for the one-time purchase of a bling timepiece. Mitchell continues his run of memorable character work here — blending the self-deprecating comic chops of Kevin Hart with the frighteningly unpredictable twitchiness of early Terrence Howard. SuperFly ultimately does nothing with this thread, its most interesting thematic conflict for Priest, and reduces Eddie to a functionary of the plot. But Mitchell at least gives the film a needed jolt of electricity.
Oh, yes. The main antagonist to Priest’s plan is a rival gang named … get ready … Snow Patrol. (Prep yourself, as characters say “Snow Patrol” with hilarious regularity throughout SuperFly.) Snow Patrol rolls like Gatsby meets Belly, clad in white with weapons like those fired at 007 on his way down a ski hill. Much like an Irish rock band eager to place more power ballads on network dramas than anyone else, Snow Patrol wants a larger piece of the drug game. Their turf war lends SuperFly an early incentivizing urgency of violence for Priest. But then Snow Patrol waits … and waits … and waits to retaliate. In case you wondered: Someone from Snow Patrol chases a car.
Much like comparisons between the original films were unavoidable, it’s tough for SuperFly to shake itself free of the Shaft remake — 18 summers ago (!) but memorably roiling with racial animosity and breezily rolling with the inherent ridiculousness of the enterprise, not to mention more creative collaboration among its villains and a time-bomb ticking tension with the hero. The comeuppances in the new SuperFly arrive with all the clumsy convenience that they might in a Neil Breen film.
Intermittently slick but never sticking, SuperFly is essentially just your IP-usherman.