Director X's "Superfly" transplants the 1972 Blaxploitation classic from Harlem streets to suburban Atlanta mansions, flips Curtis Mayfield's soul score for Future's hip-hop soundtrack and forsakes the original's politically charged grit for shallow music-video indulgence.
"He's got a plan to stick it to the man," went the ads for Gordon Parks Jr.'s "Super Fly," with Ron O'Neal as Youngblood Priest, the suave cocaine dealer trying to make one last score. Coming a year after "Shaft" (directed by Parks' father), "Super Fly" was a post-civil-rights-era time capsule oozing anti-authoritarian fury and '70s style.
"The Man" is mostly MIA in this "Superfly," which takes more after Brian De Palma's "Scarface" and familiar hip-hop fantasies than anything channeled by the earlier Blaxploitation films. If snorted lines of coke were copious in the original, Director X's "Superfly" is packed with scenes of slow-motion booty shaking — imagery the filmmaker is well versed in as the director of (some very good) music videos for Drake, Rihanna, Jay-Z and Kanye West.
This Youngblood Priest (Trevor Jackson) is a polished businessman who runs a well-established, clandestine drug business with his partner Eddie (Jason Mitchell). Financially savvy, deeply connected all over town and never rattled by the most lethal interactions, Jackson's slickly coifed Priest is almost as much superhero as super fly.
Having risen well above the streets, Priest senses his good fortune can't last. He wants to get out, along with his two girlfriends (Lex Scott Davis, Andrea Londo), before fate comes for him. There are already signs that his even-keeled lifestyle is about to get rocky. A squabble threatens the peace with the rival crew dubbed Snow Patrol, a white-dressed gang of dealers who drive white cars, shoot white guns and pretty much look like the ATL chapter of the Storm Troopers.
With one last score in mind, Priest does what few ready to give up a life of crime would do: He goes to great lengths to prove himself to a powerful Mexican cartel. "Don't let the pretty hair fool you," Priest pleads to the cartel boss (Esai Morales) after circumventing his regular supplier and mentor, the karate master Scatter (Michael Kenneth Williams).
Williams' presence begs the question: Wouldn't "Superfly" be better — and carry more of a sense of danger, of real threat — if Williams was starring in it? Jackson comfortably carries the film with a smooth panache, but his Priest — like the movie — doesn't make much of an impression.
Yet "Superfly" is also a generally entertaining movie, with good things in it. Mitchell ("Mudbound") is predictably excellent as Priest's less scrupulous partner and friend; he's the film's high point. And any movie that casts Big Boi as the mayor of Atlanta has done some things right. ("Superfly" would be better if there was more of him in it.) And Jennifer Morrison, one of the two crooked police detectives in the film, is unexpectedly terrific in a usually stereotypical role.
But it feels like the reason for remaking "Super Fly" got lost along the way. Screenwriter Alex Tse and Director X have glossed up a story that took its power from its era's reality. "Superfly" lives in a music video dream world driven by extravagance, where women aren't anything but dancing eye candy or threesome partners. Future's songs also aren't especially distinct, though, admittedly, Mayfield's majestic score — which is heard a few times here — is untouchable.
Comparing the two versions of "Super Fly" — one in two words, the other just one — only illustrates what movies can lose by over-glamourizing themselves. "Superfly" makes one belated stab at relevance in a shakedown scene with a corrupt white cop that speaks to today's Black Lives Matter protests. (In the 1972 original, it was white cops supplying the cocaine that poisoned the black community.)
But even that moment is a reminder of how much genuine angst and emotion "Super Fly" could have tapped into. For that, we'll just have to wait. Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman" is due out later this summer.
"Superfly," a Columbia Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "violence and language throughout, strong sexuality, nudity and drug content." Running time: 107 minutes. Two stars out of four.