Like with all remakes & years-late sequels, there was a lot of pressure on SuperFly to justify its own existence. A modernized retooling of one of the most iconic titles in the blaxploitation canon, this low-budget, high-fashion action thriller sets itself up for comparisons that jeopardize its chance to stand out on its own from the outset. The soundtrack may have been updated from Curtis Mayfield funk to Future trap, and some of the nihilism from the original may have been supplanted with wish-fulfillment fantasy, but it is still largely the same story of an ambitious hustler with beautifully over-treated hair struggling to get out of the cocaine business with one big, final score. Oddly, though, as much as I enjoy the 1972 Super Fly, it wasn’t the biggest compassion point that weighed on this 2018 update for me. Because of the subject and the involvement of prolific music video auteur Director X, I mostly found myself comparing it to Hype Williams’s weirdo art piece Belly, which has a cinematic eye unmatched by any two seconds of Nu SuperFly. Director X shoots the film with the flat digi-cinematography of a South Korean soap opera, which is especially noticeable in larger action set pieces involving drive-bys & car chases. It’s no matter, because SuperFly isn’t trying to be the new Belly any more than it’s trying to relive its source material beat for beat. This is a gleefully trashy, hyperviolent action cheapie with more of an eye for fashion & brutality than any technical concerns in its visual craft or its debt to stories told onscreen in the past. It’s entirely enjoyable for being just that, completely divorced from the expectations set by its most immediate comparison points.
My favorite detail in the entirety of the original Super Fly is a shot of the slick-haired anti-hero Priest laughing maniacally in the mirror while cash surreally rains down on him from the ceiling. The modern SuperFly adopts that surreal excess of wealth at feature-length, sending Nu Priest through a neon-lit labyrinth of underground-Atlanta party scenes (not too different from the Georgian strip club palace featured in Magic Mike XXL) where money rains from the heavens in a constant, steady trickle. Some of Priest’s moral ambiguity as an antihero is missing from the original as he’s shown to be an intelligent, deeply kind man well-respected in his community (of drug dealers & hustlers). His intimate, long-running familiarity with the streets he serves makes him successful beyond belief, so much so that even rival drug dealers have no desire to bully him out of the business. This wealth-showered reverie is interrupted by a drunken fight outside a nightclub that shakes Priest so much that he wants to pull off a big enough score to get out of the game for good. Of course, going big makes him much more conspicuous to a wide range of people invested in him staying exactly where he’s at in the drug-dealing hierarchy, as well as people who wish to exploit his newfound kingpin status. Suddenly, a well-loved, low-level drug pusher finds himself dangerously in conflict with everyone around him: his mentor (Michael K Williams), his suppliers, his two polyamorous girlfriends, crooked white cops, a rival gang that dresses in all-white and calls themselves Snow Patrol, etc. Because Priest is the sharpest mind in the game, however, the joy of the film is largely in watching him puzzle his way out of those individual binds as the walls close in on him from all sides and money continues to rain down with increasing menace. Successfully getting out of drug dealing alive seems more impossible by the minute, but he’s always an easy hero to root for, something that feels remarkably different from the 1972 original.
Whatever SuperFly might be missing in visual craft, taste, or tact, it easily makes up for in its willingness to be a little cheesy, a little sleazy, and more than a little greasy. Priest tends to pontificate in voice-over, seemingly even when he’s talking to other characters in lines like “All the power in the world never stopped a bullet; no car can outrun Fate,” & “God is all-knowing and that’s what makes him scary as shit.” These philosophical ponderings clash wonderfully with the film’s over-indulgences in gratuitous nudity & bullet-riddled hyperviolence. A sensual threesome in a shower extends into pure softcore titillation for minutes of tangential excess. Stage blood squibs explode in great bursts of automatic gunfire spectacle. The movie is also admirable in reaching just beyond its means in more action-heavy set pieces, leaving a trail of blood, explosions, and naked breasts all over the city of Atlanta. The Atlantan drug-dealing & strip club scene is more than just a convenient visual backdrop here. Future (the film’s producer and one of the “elder” statesmen of trap music) soundtracks its nighttime Atlanta drives with the exact sounds you’d likely hear pouring out of car windows in recent years (give or take a Migos update). OutKast’s Big Boi represents Atlanta’s hip-hop past as a preacherly mayoral figure who runs just as much game as Priest, just in a different arena. SuperFly also does right by its context as a continuation of a blaxploitation cinema past, incorporating the martial arts obsessions shared by titans of the genre like the Original Priest and Dolemite. The jujitsu choreography is much more convincingly staged here than the genre’s Kung-Fu ever was in the 1970s, though, landing with bone-crunching thuds that match the lethal violence of its many, many gunshots. The eternally naked strippers, over-the-top hyperviolence, and ungodly piles of cash that provide SuperFly its tonal foundation all feel at home with its Atlantan hip-hop & vintage blaxploitation influences. The only thing that’s really changed is the haute fashion update, wonderfully so.
Early in SuperFly, there’s a scene set in a Chinese restaurant that reminded me so much of the Migos video for “Stir Fry” that I had to check to make sure Director X didn’t also film that one himself. No matter how distracting the cheapness of its digi-cinematography could be in spectacle set pieces that admirably reach just beyond the film’s resources, I was consistently aware throughout that X had captured a very particular, current moment in black crime pop culture media. That’s the exact accomplishment that made Belly & the original Super Fly remarkable in their own respective eras. I had a lot of fun with this continuation of those traditions once I let go of its debt to past works and accepted its own merits as over-the-top action cheapie excess with a nice soundtrack, cool clothes, and neon cross-lighting. That’s more than most modern remakes offer, even the ones with 10x SuperFly’s budget.