SUPERFLY Review: Digital Dope Game

Director X's update of the Blaxploitation classic is stylish, sexy and some of the most fun you'll have in a theater all year.

Against all odds, the remake of Superfly is great. But better yet: it's aesthetically modern and minded while still feeling like a pure Blaxploitation picture. That's quite the feat music video auteur Director X and screenwriter Alex Tse have pulled off. Together, they've boiled down the essence of a '70s scene and then filtered it through the brilliantly gorgeous digital of a Michael Mann movie, resulting in a whole new brand of pulp drug exploitation fiends can mainline into their veins. In a climate where every genre artist is attempting to add "elevated" before the description of their work, X has made one of the absolute best movies of the year by unabashedly embracing clear-cut tropes, while tweaking them for an audience addicted to both Migos and Miami Vice. It's visceral, sexy, political, and features a God-level lead performance. Don't let Sony bury it like they're trying to.

Trevor Jackson takes the character of cocaine kingpin Youngblood Priest – originally played with silky charisma by Ron O'Neal in Gordon Parks Jr.'s '72 staple – and transforms him into a black Millennial superhero. He's a polyamorous man (with two partners he adores), with distaste for violence due to the police exposure it brings, opting instead to talk his way through dangerous situations (the movie's opening scene illustrating this in rather spectacular fashion). His voice rarely rises above a soothing purr, as he keeps his Prince-esque mane flawlessly coifed. Nevertheless, should a scuffle break out, he's trained in martial arts – thanks to dojo master and connect, Scatter (Omar himself, Michael K. Williams) – and can handle a tactical machine gun with no problem. His clothes are flashy, yet never gaudy as he maintains a zero arrest record and low profile mantra that echoes another Harlem kingpin: Blue Magic Don Frank Lucas. Jackson is utterly magnetic in the role: a bottomless well of movie star swagger and grace. Give him all the work from here on out.

Yet this iteration of Priest isn't operating above 110th Street, as Director X's Superfly instead transpires in the trap rap capital of Atlanta. However, Tse takes Phillip Fenty's original screenplay and really only remolds the structure slightly, as this is still very much a "one last job and then I'm out” story. After getting shot at by Snow Patrol – a gang of white-clad gangsters from a lost James Bond film who apparently have never heard of the lame ass Irish band by the same name – Youngblood has a thought while staring off into the middle distance like a proper Mann protag: "it wasn't the first time I'd been shot at, but it was gonna be last." He wants out the game for good, and – with the aid of his right hand man (not to mention consummate fuck up), Eddie (Mudbound's Jason Mitchell) – Youngblood plans to respectfully circumvent Scatter in order to buy three times his normal weight from Cartel rep Adalberto Gonzalez (Esai Morales). But he’s got to be careful, as to not piss off his mentor or get tossed into Gonzalez’s human liquefying machine (yeah, this movie’s weird like that, too).

Of course, nothing goes as planned, and a series of double crosses ensues, further proving Priest's assertion that “it doesn’t matter how smart you are in a world of stupid motherfuckers” (one of Superfly's numerous quotable quips). There's nothing notably special about the plotting – in fact, one of the film's bigger faults is that it’s back-loaded with developments and twists during that slightly bog down the pacing – allowing X to instead focus on creating an immersive rap video universe that recalls the neon slathered De Palma/Ferrara tribute that was Hype Williams' Belly. From Youngblood's introductory tracking shot, to the money-showered strip clubs and mansion parties, to the darkness penetrating cityscapes – every exterior light casting a constant halo glow on the proceedings – cinematographer Amir Mokri (Bad Boys II) transforms ATL into a drug fueled playboy Neverland, where the party only ends once shots ring out. Superfly is a stunning picture to stare at, absolutely hypnotic as it pushes digital cinematography to its breaking point.

Naturally, Superfly wouldn't earn its name if it didn't have the music to match its visuals – as the first film is possibly known more for Curtis Mayfield's soundtrack than any other element – and rapper/producer Future acquits the movie quite amicably in this department. Accompanying nearly every scene is a mixture of thumping R&B and hip hop beats; the OST is so omnipresent it practically feels like a musical at times. There's even a funeral sequence where a set of singers belt out a mournful tune, complete with spit bars. Superfly is as sonically textured as it is aesthetically pleasing, never once leaving its creators' roots behind. Yet the numbers never become distracting, instead injecting another layer of authenticity to this hood melodrama. 

Just as its genre forefathers often doubled as a soapbox for black voices to address the societal issues of their day (just look at any of Ossie Davis’ action pictures for the best examples), this Nuevo Superfly isn't shy about owning a certain level of sociopolitical messaging. Two of the main heavies are a pair of white cops (Jennifer Morrison and Brian Durkin), who not only try and shake Youngblood down, but also engage in violence and murder against the black community. Similarly, a religious-minded black politician (played by Outkast legend Big Boi) is revealed to have a few more “interests” beyond the church and its congregation while riding his rise to power. Though the politics of Superfly never threaten to overwhelm the narrative, they're certainly present and accounted for, resulting in at least one moment that's downright shocking in its rather blatantly subversive imagery.

There are certainly flaws in Director X's Superfly. At two hours, it runs a little long, and the high frame rate digital actually hurts one late in the game Lamborghini chase (that still manages to climax with a gag involving Georgia's white heritage that's downright hilarious). Still, these are minor gripes when looking at the picture's whole, as this updated take on the Blaxplo legend is never less than thrilling. In Trevor Jackson, a bona fide superstar is born, and X should have a long career helming genre movies ahead of him (if Sony doesn't doom the movie completely through their lack of marketing). Is the Superfly remake better than its predecessor? Only time will tell. One thing's for certain: it's exemplary exploitation, and the most essential piece of pure entertainment 2018 has offered up thus far. 

Superfly is currently in theaters.