Director X has already built a reputation for his stylish and inventive music videos, churned out over two decades with an impressive portfolio that overflows with mega-successful acts like Drake and Justin Bieber as well as beloved hip hop titans like Ice Cube and JAY-Z. It was only a matter of time before he crossed over into feature-length films, a considerably less populated bank which, before this year, only included Across the Line and Center Stage: On Pointe. Now he’s adding Superfly to his name, dipping back into the archives and resurrecting a classic blaxploitation that mostly got over because of its stellar soundtrack, an album produced by the legendary Curtis Mayfield.
This unnecessarily updated version is a mixed-bag to say the least, imbued with much of X’s flamboyant direction and focus on the excesses of gang culture and the drug trade, but trading the original’s depth (as negligible as it was) for shallow sketches and crowd-pleasing action. It follows the predictable story of the drug trade in predominately black ghettos, set in Atlanta though shying away from the delipidated trap houses to focus on lavish mansions, art galleries and nightclubs. It’s large-scale enough to show Asian importers buying drugs using cryptocurrency, yet admirably intimate in its focus on slick-haired dope boy Youngblood Priest (Trevor Jackson), tracking his desire to rise through the ranks and retire ahead of his old school bosses.
Priest is the classic pig that doesn’t fly straight; a disrupter always thinking major steps in front of everyone else, including rival drug dealer Snow Patrol (not the band – although that would make for a much more interesting film), his metaphor-dealing mentor Scatter (an underused Michael Kenneth Williams), and a stern Mexican cartel boss phoned in by a barely-there Esai Morales. His story is an amalgamation of similar films that have come before, bleeding into this remake and informing its rather predictable route; though Superfly lacks the earnestness of ATL, the depth of Menace II Society, the intrigue of New Jack City, the elegance of Scarface, and the atmosphere of Hype Williams’ oddball Belly. X attempts to channel all these films but ends up with something more akin to Exit Wounds or In Too Deep: a passable gangster movie that’s mildly entertaining but nothing more.
On top of the generic script is a severe lack of pacing. Many of these scenes are awkwardly wedged into each other with little to no consistency, action scenes coming out of nowhere with what seems like more of a box-ticking exercise than anything else. A shoot-out scene here, a hilariously awkward threesome scene there, and a car chase for good measure, all scored by different tracks on the film’s Future-produced soundtrack. In fact, there are so many cuts from the OST taken and played beneath the scenes that barely a minute goes by without an obvious plug for the audio package, almost as if X is treated this more as one long music video than a film.
The biggest weakness however is the film’s overindulgence in the surface successes of black crime films. It’s ironic that the original’s Harlem setting was replaced with Atlanta, arguably the birthplace of what the wider music industry now knows as “trap music”. The break-off genre of hip hop, which has most certainly been perverted and misinterpreted over the years, began to take shape at the turn of the century with artists like T.I and (Young) Jeezy grounding southern rap in the streets after mega-successful artists like Ludacris made it more radio friendly. It was a state of mind as much as it was a sound, often conceived as a style of gangster rap that involved complex perspectives of the local dope boy scene. At its core was a self-reflexive look at drug pushing as an unwanted necessity and a figurative trap for black youth, with its proponents urging people to “Be Better Than Me” (an actual T.I song from the album Trap Muzik). The same philosophy sits at the heart of this film’s superior peers, cautionary tales like the aforementioned ATL and John Singleton’s unimpeachable classic Boyz N The Hood. The original Super Fly could, in some ways, be wedged into that same category, with deeper layers and warnings about the life, but this remake is far from that.
Depth isn’t what X planned though. In an interview with theundefeated.com the director states that his remake is closer to Fast & Furious than it is to The Wire. You don’t get any more descriptive than that, especially considering Fast & Furious has become synonymous with mindless action done well in Hollywood, and while Superfly may have nowhere near the same muscle as the action franchise, it’s at least an enjoyable film for what it is.
TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Superfly is in cinemas now