‘Superfly’ Updates ’70s Cult Classic With Loud Action and Lots of Flying Cash

Superfly” attempts to update the 1970s Blaxploitation classic for these louder, more expensive times. No longer the stuff of low-budget, underground filmmaking, this new version takes itself a bit too seriously, trading verve for rehashed gangster movie clichés. The original Gordon Parks, Jr. movie starring Ron O’Neal survives as a time capsule of the kind of urban, gritty films that emerged in the post-Civil Rights landscape. It was instantly controversial in 1972 for its suggestion that many black men were better off making a living as hustlers as the system continues to be unfair. The social commentary in the movie remains vivid even today along with the absurd action scenes, slick one-liners and cool suits. This new “Superfly” keeps the original character, but thinks it works as just another cocaine bullet fest.

Times are good for drug dealer Youngblood Priest (Trevor Jackson), who has risen to the top ranks of the drug market in Atlanta. He has it all, cool hair, great car, and two girlfriends who live under the same fancy roof with him, Georgia (Lex Scott Davis) and Cynthia (Andrea Londo). But one night while hitting the club scene Priest bumps into fellow traffickers Snow Patrol, one of whose members, Juju (Kaalan Walker) has some kind of inexplicable hatred for the young kingpin. A shoot out ensues, an innocent bystander is hit and Priest decides it is time to leave “the game.” But before quitting, he plans to pull off a deal so big he and his main associate, Eddie (Jason Mitchell), will be left with enough to breeze out of town. But when Priest’s usual supplier (and martial arts trainer) Scatter (Michael Kenneth Williams), refuses to go along with the plan, Priest decides to go solo. He crosses the border to Mexico and strikes a deal with Scatter’s own source, drug lord Adalberto Gonzalez (Esai Morales). As Priest makes big plans big trouble comes around the corner from Snow Patrol and ever so corrupt police.

“Superfly” has a glossy look, but it lacks the attitude of a real crime movie or Blaxploitation flick. Nobody in this film feels like an actual criminal, but like actors pretending to be bad boys. Maybe it’s because Trevor Jackson, at the mere age of 21, never carries himself with the kind of edge or air of experience you would expect from a veteran hustler (from age 11 according to the voice over) who has the city in his pocket. When he barks a command or tries to intimidate someone who owes him money, you find yourself wondering why the older adversary doesn’t just deck him. If the original Priest as played by O’Neal had grit, Jackson’s Priest has the style and attitude of a hipster intern. The screenplay by Alex Tse is an attempt at pulling off the concept of the good crook, the gangster who walks around armed and sells cocaine, but he’s actually a nice guy with good taste and manners. In this case he is too much of a nice guy. Take away the gun and you would easily find this Priest cramming for midterms on campus. He speaks flawless Spanish, buys Georgia her own art gallery (but nothing for Cynthia) and laments at the dinner table, “is that all you see me as, as some crook?” One wonders what job description he was aiming for. You don’t need to be a trafficker yourself to know the drug world is a ruthless terrain, how Priest made it this far would make El Chapo scratch his head. Curiously it is those surrounding Priest who have more of the necessary, thug aura, especially Jacob Ming-Trent as Fat Freddy and Jason Mitchell’s Eddie.

There is no social commentary in “Superfly.” Director X, who made his name filming music videos and here makes his feature debut, is more interested in shooting flashy cars, big guns and men throwing endless streams of cash at dancing women (this is the film’s recurring motif). But there’s no satire or humorous energy, or even the seriousness of films like “New Jack City” or TV shows like “Atlanta.” Instead everything is treated as a cliché, with cocaine as just another recycled plot device. Juju simply hates Priest because he is there, and Scatter has no clear reason for denying Priest those extra kilos, except as a convenient excuse for the antihero to do his own thing with the Mexicans. Near the end of the second act, quite literally out of nowhere, a third storyline is thrown in involving two corrupt cops, Mason (Jennifer Morrison) and Turk (Brian F. Durkin), who demand a cut from Priest. There are flashes here of some great, relevant humor, especially when Turk inspects a car being driven by Fat Freddy and starts singing “Ridin’” by Chamillionaire. Later there is a police shooting of a parked driver that is an obvious reference to the ongoing debate surrounding police brutality, but it’s simply thrown in without any thought put into the writing. The violence in the movie is stale and without much suspense, composed of the usual shots of people running around a house firing machine guns or doing drive bys. One darkly funny touch does involve a body disposal machine used by Gonzalez, which is eco-friendly and turns corpses into a dark goo. There is also some better comedy involving a corrupt local mayor, Mayor Atkins (Big Boi), who keeps hitting on Georgia and will gladly give out political favors.

Any traces of the tradition of Blaxploitation are buried under the slow motion shots of dancing women and flying dollars, bullet-riddled corpses and lifeless dialogue. The soundtrack by Future features tracks by Lil Wayne, Miguel, 21 Savage and H.E.R., which will please fans but offer little to the story. It pales in comparison to Kendrick Lamar’s masterful soundtrack album for “Black Panther.” Maybe what was needed here was a more creative, vintage approach like Scott Sanders’ 2009 “Black Dynamite.” There is a threesome in “Superfly” involving Priest, Georgia and Cynthia in the shower, but even that moment lacks coolness, it’s instead shot in the typical style of every other music video sex scene. But at least it has the merit of promoting interracial coupling.

“Superfly” wants to bank off the title of a genre classic without keeping the spirit of the genre alive. It needs more verve than gloss and more brains than bullets.

Superfly” opens June 15 in theaters nationwide.