Enough of the narrative from the 1972 original (titled “Super Fly”) remains in this 2018 “Superfly” for it to qualify as a bona fide remake, but while the plot is similar, the new version lacks the punch of Gordon Parks Jr.’s predecessor, which remains a groundbreaking classic of the so-called blaxploitation movies of its time. It comes off as derivative not only of Parks’s movie, but of the many tales of street-smart drug-dealers that have appeared over the intervening years, and despite some bracing action scenes, most of it feels rather tired and tame. That’s disappointing, given that it comes from self-styled Director X (Julien Christian Lutz), whose debut feature “Across the Line” (2015) had a gritty urgency this movie lacks—and that “Super Fly,” for all its technical failings, had in abundance.
The hero, or anti-hero if you’re among those who will once again decry the tale’s glorification of the gangsta life, is once more named Youngblood Priest, but now he’s a twenty-something striver on the streets of Atlanta, played by Trevor Jackson, rather than the older, more world-wise protagonist that Ron O’Neal presented forty-five years ago. Sporting sleek dark clothes, an impeccably trimmed beard and a pompadour that’s always immaculately groomed, Priest is a guy who learned the trade of cocaine distribution at an early age from his supplier, Fagin-like martial-arts expert Scatter (Michael Kenneth Williams), and along with his less controlled partner Eddie (Jason Mitchell), has kept a clean record with the cops by running his operation out of a seedy-looking furniture store. He also has a couple of devoted babes, Georgia (Lex Scott Davis), who runs an art gallery, and showgirl Cynthia (Andrea Londo), who live with him in his ritzy house and sometimes engage in an intimate three-way with him.
Priest is on relatively good terms with his competitor Q (Big Bank Black), who runs the Snow Patrol, a gang who all dress—despite the Georgia heat—in white ski parkas, in some cases complete with fur collars. (Their look practically invites a synchronized dance routine, but unfortunately it never materializes.) For some reason—jealousy most obviously—Q’s scrawny lieutenant Juju (Kaalan ‘KR’ Walker) bears a seething resentment toward Priest, and tries to shoot him, wounding a girl instead when his intended victim jumps with catlike reflexes out of the way (and then instructs the girl’s friends to take her to the hospital, tossing a wad of cash to them—showing us he’s really a good guy). When an attack occurs on the barber shop that’s Q’s headquarters, he assumes Priest is responsible—and, as it turns out, that’s half-true.
The episode convinces Priest that it’s time to get out of the drug trade and seek retirement in some faraway paradise, and though Eddie is reluctant to go along with the idea, Priest asks Scatter for more product to push so he can quickly build a larger bankroll. When Scatter refuses (during a pupil-teacher wrestling match in which both get to show their skill), Priest decides to trail his supplier to Texas, no less, and approach the drug-cartel honcho from whom Scatter buys the stuff, Adalberto Gonzalez (Esai Morales), to make a deal without a middleman. (Scatter apparently doesn’t notice that he’s being followed for hundreds of miles.) Adalberto is at first so resistant that he threatens to toss Priest out of his private jet at a few thousand feet up, but eventually agrees; and when he finds out, Scatter won’t be happy.
Then there are the corrupt cops on the Atlanta force. One of Priest’s crew, Fat Freddy (Jacob Ming-Trent), gets into trouble with his girlfriends, and the upshot is that on-the-take Detective Mason (Jennifer Mason) and her murderous henchman Officer “Turk” Franklin (Brian F. Durkin) show up at Priest’s showroom demanding a major slice of his profits. Priest suddenly finds himself in the crosshairs of Q and Juju, Scatter (and perhaps Gonzalez, if he doesn’t keep his promises), and the cops (if he doesn’t meet their demands). He’ll have to do a lot of smooth sidestepping if he and his girls have any hope of making a bundle and getting away to the perfect retirement they plan in, of all places, Montenegro (is a crude joke intended by that country’s name?).
First, the positive elements. Despite the complexity of the goings-on, Director X and his editor, listed in some sources as Ann-Carolin Beisenbach, keep the various plot threads reasonably clear, though some of the characters’ motives are obstinately opaque (the fault of Alex Tse’s screenplay). Mitchell, who resembles Tracy Morgan, proves a good comic foil for Priest, and rapper Antwon ‘Big Boy’ Patton, whom you might mistake for Cedric Kyles, is a hoot as Atlanta’s empty-headed mayor. And though Morales makes a fairly stock villain, Renee Victor, who appears briefly as his hard-as-nails mother, cuts an arrestingly amusing figure.
Otherwise the picture is far less sunny. Director X doesn’t bring much finesse to the expository scenes—the first ten minutes of the movie are totally flat—and even the big action set-pieces (the barber shop shooting, an assault on Priest’s home, a car chase toward the close) are pretty sloppily shot and edited, though they’re not entirely without exciting moments. Amir Mkri’s camerawork is in general bland, though the fact that the production design by Graham ‘Grace’ Walker is pretty nondescript—aside from Q’s opening party scene and the interior of Priest’s home—couldn’t have inspired him much.
As for Jackson, the young man is capable of fine acting—his performance on “American Crime” proved that—but here he’s required mostly to pose, preen and go through some action moves (unless stunt players took the falls for him). Perhaps it was the need to protect that hairdo—remarked on sarcastically by a few observers—that dampened his energy level, but his Priest has less charisma than one might have hoped. The rest of the cast do what is demanded of them, but unhappily that’s not much.
This updated “Superfly” is a flashy but strangely flaccid remake of a movie that became iconic, despite (or perhaps because of) its grubbiness.