Cinema Dispatch: Superfly

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Superfly and all the images you see in this review are owned by Sony Pictures Releasing

Directed by Director X

Look, the only thing I know about this movie going in is that I’ll FINALLY stop seeing ten seconds ads for this every time I watch a video on YouTube.  That seriously got annoying really quick, but I guess I can’t blame them for YouTube’s crappy algorithms that somehow targeted me to play this same commercial over and over again, and I’m at least glad it meant I didn’t see those homophobic advertisements they got busted for (seriously YouTube, what the hell is going on with you!?), but I digress.  I know nothing about the original other than that it’s pretty well regarded as a cult classic from the seventies (but then how many movies from the seventies AREN’T considered cult classics at this point?) and the trailers for this new film, while repetitive and obnoxious to sit through all the time, didn’t look all that bad!  Does this movie redeem itself for annoying the hell out of me for a month straight, or was YouTube trying to warn me to stay far away from yet another subpar remake?  Let’s find out!!

On the mean streets of Atlanta, a man named Priest (Trevor Jackson) is working his way up the CRIME LADDERTM and has certainly earned the respect of many of his peers.  Why?  Well he knows how to use google for one!  And… I think he knows Kung-Fu?  In any case, he always manages to have the upper hand on whoever he’s dealing with, and he can get himself out of a tricky situation if the occasion arises which is good for staying alive but not so good for those around you.  Case in point, when some brash newbie on a local gang known as The Snow Patrol (yes, they’re being serious) starts bucking up to Priest, it ends with an innocent woman getting shot with a bullet intended for him and he realizes he needs to get out of the game before it takes away whatever’s still left of his soul.  With the support of his two ladies Georgia and Cynthia (Lex Scott Davis and Andrea Londo) as well as his best friend and partner in crime Eddie (Jason Mitchell), Priest will have to come up with a plan so big that it will set him and his family up for life so he can finally leave this all behind him.  I mean, he could use his considerable skills to make an honest (or honest-ish) living, and it’s not like he’s hurting for THAT much cash as it is, but I guess one more big score couldn’t hurt, right? Well when it involves your former mentor (Michael Kenneth Williams), the leader of a drug cartel (Esai Morales), and even the corrupt police right around the corner (Jennifer Morrison and Brian F Durkin) all wanting to take a piece of you for themselves, things can get pretty complicated pretty fast.  Will Priest be able to get his and get out before he gets got?  What exactly is THE SNOW PATROL planning, and will it be as laughable as their ridiculous name?  Is he super hood, super high, and a super dude?  He’s more than that!  HE’S SUPER FLY!!

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That is hair so good, it requires its own insurance plan.

I didn’t fall in love with this movie, but I respect it for certain things it was trying to do and it’s easily the most polished film of its kind since Straight Outta Compton which wasn’t really a CRIME film per se (even though drugs, shakedowns, and fuzzy financial chicanery were all part of the story), but it manages to get a lot of the anger and timely messaging that really made it stand out.  There are moments in here that feel as vital, relevant, and boldly political as what we saw in that biopic which is all great, but it’s also silly, gaudy, and even quite misogynistic at points which I felt detracted from its message somewhat; not to mention that it gets rather aimless in the middle with an uneven script that drops characters in and out of the movie with little fanfare or warning.  That said I’m also not the target audience for this so anything I say here should definitely be taken with a grain of salt, and despite my reservations about its tone, structure, and pacing, I still think this is a VERY solid and enjoyable film that will strike a chord with those looking for something better than say Den of Thieves which tried to be a thinking man’s gangster film and failed utterly at it.  This one doesn’t succeed with FLYING colors, but it’s got the confidence to sell it as if it were Shakespeare which counts for a lot and covers up some of the rougher edges of both the hero and the film around him.

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“Running, running, running, RUNNING!!”

More so than the testosterone soaked bluster of Den of Thieves, this movie has a lot in common with the recent Ocean’s 8 (and presumably the rest of the series) because it’s more about deals, confidence, and hustling, than shooting guns and gritty realis, and our hero Priest (no his name isn’t Superfly in the movie) is a bit of an anomaly in the genre which makes him the movie stand out quite a bit.  His clothes are stylish but not ostentatious.  He’s taller than everyone, but he’s lanky more than anything else which means he doesn’t have much of an imposing frame to intimidate people with.  Instead, he’s smarter than everyone else around and has the common sense to not give into anger or bravado for the sake of good business and simply survival.  Even that description though is too strict as he certainly has his weaknesses and fails to live up to his own standards of excellence from time to time; all of which only adds to his vulnerability and therefore his awesome badass strength to still come out on top.  Sadly that sense of nuance doesn’t really extend to the rest of the cast, most of whom are fine if a bit stock (Michael Kenneth Williams is WAY underutilized here), and it’s especially galling when it comes to THE SNOW PATROL who are the biggest dorks I’ve ever seen in my life and are about as threatening as a high school band.  These clowns are so uncool that they wear matching white outfits and spray-paint all their guns white because… I don’t even know; they found a near-rhyme and just ran with it.   I guess it KIND of works as a clear contrast to the kind of criminal Priest so ardently avoids being (gaudy, impulsive, constantly calling attention to themselves) which could be construed as a critique on the genre itself, but I just never felt a single moment of menace from them which is a bit of a problem considering they’re the main motivator for Priest to even try this risky venture.  Now who ARE scary in the movie are the cops who show up rather late but make their presence known in a big way.  They’re eventually involvement with all of this completely reframes the war being waged and it’s an effective raising of the stakes with one of the most chilling scenes you’ll see in a movie this year; and I mean ACTUALLY chilling instead of that… stuff, that was in Hereditary.

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“The tears on my face may be fake, but on the inside… they’ve very real…”

One of the major problems though is that the movie lives and dies by the amount of tension it can bring to the story and it just can’t manage to do it for most of its running time.  There’s a far too brief sequence where Priest goes toe to toe with the cartel boss in the beginning, and things don’t really pick up until the cops are introduced like forty minutes later.  That entire section of the movie, while not ENTIRELY without value, feels like a dead zone as Priest’s plan goes along just fine and The Snow Patrol never really does anything to impede him.  It’s not even THAT complex of a plan as far as I can tell which is basically to not just sell cocaine, but sell A LOT of it, which… okay, but it’s hardly that interesting to watch back to back drug deals; especially when they don’t do anything all that interesting with it.  There are other plot points that pop up here and there including a mayoral run and a brief look into Priest’s past, but they’re so tertiary to the main story that they feel like filler more than anything else to pad out the runtime; not to mention that the ticking clock as it were is constantly being undercut because everyone, INCLUDING Priest, throws money around like it’s on fire despite it being the one thing they desperately need.  It’s a shame that the movie just kind of meanders its way through the third act because even when this movie isn’t firing on all cylinders it’s STILL something worth appreciating.  I like how slick the production is here and Trevor Jackson’s portrayal of this character, while not always PERFECT (the script leaves him out to dry in a few places), is pretty interesting and he does have a huge amount of charisma to bring to the role.  I just wish the movie had a better idea of what it wanted to be instead of this vague idea of like seven things it was trying to be.

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“Let’s make it RAIN up in here!”     “That’s not money, that’s the script!  AND WE DIDN’T NUMBER THE PAGES!!”

So despite some flaws with the villains and the overall pacing, it’s a really solid movie.  However, there was one aspect of it that made me feel a bit uncomfortable, and while it may say more about me than it does about the movie, it is rather representative of the unevenness of the movie overall.  It may be bold and unflinching at points with its depiction of the plight of black America, but it also indulges in unflattering stereotypes and outright misogyny.  I like that the movie VERY explicitly casts white people with speaking roles as unambiguous bad guys and the scene of a cop doing something we’ve ALL seen too many god damn times in real life is utterly chilling; especially when contrasted with a similarly realistic media circus that justifies these actions without a second thought.  That said, I can’t help but feel that message is undercut when contrasted with a scene prior where a room full of men were hooting and hollering over a cat fight between two mistresses of one the guys there.  As much as the movie keeps trying to show Priest (and by extension the film itself) as somewhat above the lowest common denominator of tropes for the genre, it still manages to have blind spots here and there that made me feel a bit deflated about later scenes of GENUINE social critique.  For example, the movie makes a big deal out of him having not just two girlfriends like pretty much everyone else in the movie (see above catfight), but a functioning polyamorous relationship with two STRONG INDEPENDENT WOMENTM who are just as in love with each other as they are with him.  Look, I’m not someone in a position to judge queer representation, but it rang a bit hollow here because it’s always framed for the male gaze, and there’s a clear “favorite” here which leaves the other as someone disposable as far as the script is concerned.  The only time we see both girlfriends interact is when they are depicted in a sexual manner, and pretty much every other time they’re on screen is to talk about Priest and how much they love him.  They’re not even a part of the big scheme that’s going on with Priest which means their ACTUAL input as far as the way the story goes is utterly perfunctory.  It really feels like a cleaned up version of male fantasy than something genuinely queer (those accusing The Last of Us 2 for doing that, you should probably aim your ire this way instead), but then I’m not the one who should really be judging it; I’m just telling you how it came across to me.  That also goes double for the disconnect I had with the depiction of black people in this movie juxtaposed by very realistic police violence.  I know that it doesn’t matter who people are, how they act, or what they’re job is; it’s always a straight up crime to do what the cops do in this movie and should always be abhorred, but I’m also aware that this is a movie that exists solely in a world created by its filmmakers, and tone as well as content can clash in a way that undercuts their overall themes which is what I feel is going on here, at least to a certain extent.

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“Boy, isn’t it great to have this nice dinner with our loved ones!”     “Sure is!  You, me… um…”     “What?”     “Wasn’t there someone… never mind.”

The film is certainly a mixed bag with some parts working extremely well and others falling flat on their face.  For me, I was able to average it out to a somewhat above average time at the theater and I do think that it’s worth checking out.  Still, for others the flaws will drown out whatever good elements are there and there will also be fans who will love it unconditionally despite its rough edges which admittedly is not a particularly HELPFUL summary of the film if you’re reading this to find out if its good or not, but not every film can be easily pigeonholed on the GOOD/BAD spectrum.  I definitely want to see a movie that is this righteously angry, extremely slick, and exuding with confidence done a lot BETTER which will hopefully be the case as films like The First Purge, BlacKkKlansman, and Sorry to Bother You showing a whole lot of promise, but this is still a solid entry in the crime film genre with some of the best hair you will EVER see!  Seriously, if Bad Grandpa can get an Oscar nomination for Hair and Makeup, why not this film for Priest’s perfectly sculptured looks!?

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