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‘Superfly’ is less than super

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Here’s a fun fact about my cinematic tastes that might surprise you: I have a deep-seated and ongoing affection for the blaxploitation genre films of the early 1970s. “Shaft,” “Dolemite,” “Avenging Disco Godfather” – even later parodies like “I’m Gonna Get You Sucka” and “Black Dynamite” – are all … not favorites, per se, but definitely beloved bits of my movie-watching history.

“Superfly,” the new remake of the 1972 classic of the same name, makes an effort to stay true to the spirit of the original. It’s definitely slick and stylish, directed by noted music video auteur Director X from a script by Alex Tse, but it lacks some of the soul that made the original film so engaging and fun. While this new offering shows some flashes, it can’t quite put the pieces together. The end result is too long and lacking in joy.

Youngblood Priest (Trevor Jackson, “Juveniles”) is a major operator in the Atlanta drug trade. However, he has always managed to stay off the radar; he and his crew have never had a single run-in with the police. He lives the life with his ladies - Georgia (Lex Scott Davis, TV’s “Training Day”) and Cynthia (Andrea Larno, TV’s “Narcos”) – but finds himself wanting to get out of the game for good.

Priest’s desire to get out is complicated by an inadvertent feud. A gangster named JuJu (Kaalan Walker, “Kings”) – one of the top lieutenants to Q (rapper Big Black Bank), head of the hilariously-named cocaine-dealing gang known as the Snow Patrol – is consumed by jealousy and wants to take Priest out; that desire has wide-ranging and unanticipated consequences.

Priest decides he wants to go for one final score – one so big that he and his can retire to a lifetime of comfort and luxury. With his trusted second Eddie (Jason Mitchell, “Detroit”) beside him, Priest reaches out first to his mentor (in both drug dealing and jiu-jitsu) Scatter (Michael K. Williams, “The Public”) and then to cartel boss Adalberto Gonzalez (Esai Morales, TV’s “How to Get Away with Murder”) in an effort to score enough coke for that final financial push.

But when both the cops and the crooks catch wind of what Priest is trying to do – thanks to some less than savvy actions made on his behalf – Priest is left with no choice but to fight back. And he does so in the only way he knows how.

And all the while, he stays … super fly.

Obviously, one doesn’t go into a film like “Superfly” with the expectation of some sort of cinematic revelation. It isn’t that kind of movie. You’re not looking for great – you’re looking for fun. And while there are certainly some fun moments, the overall feeling is that of wheels spinning, with a lot of energy being expended to no real purpose.

Director X’s lack of feature experience would appear to be a disadvantage at first glance, but he puts his music video skills to good use. There’s no disputing that “Superfly” is a good-looking movie, stylish and visually engaging. And the soundtrack is great – rapper Future (who also produced the film) created many of the songs and carefully curated the rest. Unfortunately, there’s an emptiness at the heart of Alex Tse’s script and not nearly enough social resonance or campy charm to overcome it.

That said, there are some ridiculous – in a good way – moments. My favorite involves a high-speed chase that ends with a white Lamborghini crashing into a memorial statue of a Confederate general on horseback and exploding. Also, everyone knows martial arts and parties like hip-hop one-percenters.

Pulling off a role like Priest requires raw charisma over everything else; that presence is vital to making the character anything other than laughable. Jackson does it; even the too-slick clothes and anachronistic hairdo work when he’s wearing them. Mitchell and Williams both do nice work in supporting roles – Williams seems especially game in a smallish but key performance - while Davis and Larno manage to make the polyamorous relationship triangle click. The Snow Patrol guys are hilariously stereotyped across the board – Walker in particular is so over the top in just about every scene that he might as well be arm-wrestling Sylvester Stallone.

It’s not that there isn’t fun to be had with “Superfly.” Whether we’re talking about random slo-mo jiu-jitsu fights in the middle of the street or convoluted hyper-articulate monologues or extended sequences of dudes just making it rain in the club, there are chunks of this movie that seem like genuine spiritual descendants of Ron O’Neal and Gordon Parks. There just aren’t enough of them. The film fails to maintain that level with any real consistency and winds up feeling fairly uneven. And without finding more ways to tap into the awareness and/or weirdness of the original, it comes off as both competently made and vaguely unfulfilling.

“Superfly” is fine, but nothing more than that.

[3 out of 5]

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