From moment one of Superfly, the remake of the 1972 blaxploitation film of the same name, there is over-indulgent bombast. Not to demean the song that kicks off the film. Future curates the original music throughout, which is lush and appealing, if not an impossible comparison to Curtis Mayfield’s scoring of the original film (his “Pusherman,” which is one of the best original songs made for a film, gets reprised in this movie).
Music, in fact, might be the strongest aspect of Director X’s vision of enigmatic Atlanta drug pusher Youngblood Prince (Trevor Jackson). It makes sense, given the man’s lengthy history as a music video director.
That also likely explains why the plot of the film begins in a highly-active strip club. This sequence is, more or less, a hip-hop music video. And the rest of the film follows this stylistic template. Flashy, glossy set dressings. Male gazing environments with cash flying in the air and women lazily gyrating. The film does not shy away from the sleaze of its exploitation roots, but it does distance itself from the relatively restrained political messaging of its predecessor.
This isn’t to say there aren’t nods to current American socio-political issues. Police officers abuse power. A confederate memorial statue is destroyed in literally over-blown fashion. Fake news is name dropped in the same breath as the word “America.” In one instance, the brilliant line “No one’s more gangster than a bank” is said.
All fine platforms from which to make statements. But by and large these things are window dressing to the film’s main plot. Even the abusive police characters are introduced late, and they are depicted as too mustache-twirling to be a true mirror of real-world issues of police brutality.
The main plot, as it is in the 1972 film, is about Prince taking steps to get out of the broken system that he has already done a good job at gaming in his favor. The stance that Alex Tse’s script seems to take is also 1-to-1 with Gordon Parks Jr.’s film, in that Prince is taking life-threatening risks to get out of a life that is ultimately just as threatening, if not more.
The film bears this story arc out. Relationships within the business are rocky at best. Prince is savvy enough to get by, but the people he surrounds himself with prove to be less savvy. There are genuine, tangible stakes to every move Prince makes, as well as the moves that happen around him that are out of his control. The moving parts are compelling throughout.
There is a disconnect, though, to how this script plays out and how Director X chooses to stage the action. For one, the various gunfights and singular car chase are shot and choreographed in an ugly manner. Slow motion and computer generated blood abound. Outside of these moments of action, the film carries itself like a music video touting the lap of luxury that these pushermen walk in once they’ve staked their claim in the business.
Even Prince stages a lavish, sleazy party in his nice home. This is the same scene where he scolds his right-hand man Eddie (Jason Mitchell) for drawing too much unwanted attention by wearing an expensive watch. The film is about getting out of this harmful lifestyle, yet the lifestyle is depicted as highly profitable and luxurious to a hedonistic degree.
As muddled as Director X makes this central theme, there is at least one key area where the film outpaces its predecessor. Where the original spends most of its energy fleshing out the Prince character, this film provides a modicum of depth to each major player in the plot. Most of this comes in the form of basic goals and motivations, but it is enough to make the isolated criminal world a more dynamic environment. Actions cause reactions in multiple characters, which cause ripple effects in the trajectory of the plot.
This leads to an engaging film, if not one that feels misguided and under-directed. The cast helps bolster this engagement. In Jackson’s performance there is a realistic sense of the swagger that is necessary in filling the shoes of Ron O’Neal. Even as the incessant jabs at his coifed hairdo keep coming, continually threatening to cause the character to become an unintentional high concept punchline, Jackson stays in the pocket and keeps Prince a grounded character.
The numerous issues with Superfly, surprisingly, do not take away from what makes the film compelling. Not entirely. But it can be a bumpy ride traversing this two-hour film. The flaws stack.
Some of the flaws come from leaning into the blaxploitation elements that don’t age as well—namely, the representation of women (although, there are some intriguing elements to how the two female prongs of the film’s polygamous relationship factor into the plot).
Other flaws could have been buffed out of the otherwise slick finished product. This never came to pass, thus some of the biggest and most dramatic moments are deflated by poor technical craft.
But don’t get me wrong. The music is good.
As always, thanks for reading!
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)