Published Jun 21, 2018In order to not have Superfly written off as yet another product of Hollywood's penchant for remakes, Director X has said his take on Gordon Parks Jr.'s 1972 blaxploitation film is more a reimagining, with reverence for the original. That promise is largely met by keeping the story and its main characters intact, taking the crime tale from Harlem to Atlanta, in recognition of the latter city's status as a current hub of African-American culture.
Despite a heavy trade-in of the original's grit for modern-day glitz, X's reimagining makes use of a familiar framework. The film follows cocaine dealer Youngblood Priest (Trevor Jackson), who is looking to leave the dangerous lifestyle behind to avoid getting killed. After agreeing to complete one final drug deal, Priest must then face off against a rival gang, a Mexican drug cartel and crooked cops in order to ensure a clean escape.
The usual knock against music video directors moving to full-length features is that their work in the longer format can tend to play out like an extended artist visual. To say that of Superfly would be lazy, despite the glamour, with the film placing heavy emphasis on its action sequences.
Elaborate shootouts are all the more devastating in slow motion, while a smoothly shot supercar chase scene earns extra style points for its fiery toppling of a Confederate statue. This emphasis can at times be detrimental to dialogue. A scene in which Priest meets with mentor Scatter (Michael K. Williams) at the latter's martial arts gym (the character ran a restaurant in the 1972 film) demands heightened attention as their conversation is broken up between jiu jitsu throws.
Superfly's action-first focus also tends to push the story's social subtext to the margins. A scene where Priest retrieves a stash of cash from his now-abandoned childhood home finds him pacing the floor, hearing the voice of a family member concerned with his livelihood. It's a rare moment of weakness for the smooth criminal that unfortunately isn't developed further. The shooting of an unarmed black man by a racist police officer is a grim enough parallel to current events, though justice here comes in the form of Priest delivering a righteous ass-kicking to tie up the loose end.
Other updates to keep in step with the times are more apparent: Priest launders his drug money in crypto-currency; a police officer doesn't hesitate to unlock a suspect's smartphone with Face ID technology; and there's even a fake news joke. Those already keen to the culture will recognize Big Boi as the mayor of Atlanta, while Rick Ross finally gets to play the role of a kingpin outside of the booth.
Viewers hoping for a modern update to the underlying themes of Parks Jr.'s original won't find much beneath X's flashy visuals, but by avoiding a by-the-book remake, he's succeeded in delivering a souped-up summer blockbuster with no shortage of onscreen slickness.