Of all the soulless rehashes of easily recognizable properties, who would have guessed that Hollywood would soon be gunning to capitalize on the product recognition of Super Fly? While there’s certainly a debate to be had around the worldview of the 1972 blaxploitation landmark, it undeniably shaped the conversation around one of film’s most touchy subgenres. A remake in name only, 2018’s Superfly trades in the stiff streets of Harlem for the Dirty South, the iconic Curtis Mayfield soundtrack for cookie-cutter trap tunes, and cold, hard cash for cryptocurrency, never rising above the kind of carbon-copy crime dramas filling Spike TV’s weekday afternoon lineup.
Our story, naturally, revolves around Youngblood Priest (Grown-ish‘s Travis Jackson, who was even less invested in starring in this film than I was in watching it), a reluctant mid-level drug slinger who indulges in the swanky life of a successful Atlanta crook with his art dealer girlfriend (Lex Scott Davis) and their all-but nameless mutual sex doll (Andrea Londo). Priest is tired of living in fear of catching a bullet in the back, so he and his partner-in-crime (soon-to-be Academy Award nominee Jason Mitchell, simply cashing a paycheck) hatch one last scheme that will bring in enough money for them to comfortably retire. However, in doing so, he must out-gun the cartoonish rival gang, a racially-motivated corrupt police force, the mentor he screwed over in the process (Michael K. Williams), and your ultra-conservative uncle’s idea of a Mexican drug cartel.
Superfly is an insufferably goofy piece of storytelling, yet it lacks any of its predecessor’s campy charm. With his feature-length debut, Director X (the Canadian big budget music video helmer who made a name for himself working with Drake and Nicki Minaj) repeatedly takes stylistic cues from the world of soap operas, complete with drowning every confrontation in cornball slow motion and making cheesy, obvious comments on the script’s few thematic schemes through the use of awkwardly forced voice-over narration: “No car can outrun fate.” He also pulls from a host of drug lord thrillers, resulting in fight scenes that find our hero fixing his hair between punches and a script that owes a writing credit to Urban Dictionary, as it runs through a checklist of hokey slang terms with varying degrees of cultural relevance. There’s an astounding amount of absurdity for a movie that takes itself this seriously.
Production design is the movie’s strong suit, draping extravagant Atlanta hotspots in a rap music video’s idea of luxury. Though, while it’s often pretty to look at, none of the diamond-studded imagery stands out among the sea of style-over-substance crime flicks. As glitzy and chic as it can be at times, it’s a cinematic Frankenstein’s monster, fashioned together from other (better) gangster movies. The movie’s most memorable scene is a needlessly gratuitous shower threesome that lasts the entire length of a generic, soft-edged contemporary R&B track in a sadistic experiment in testing a the limits of a viewer’s patience.
The films of the blaxploitation era – and even crime mainstays like Scarface and The Departed – haven’t all aged terribly well, but they at least felt authentic to a specific moment in time. They were cultural time capsules that boasted a snapshot of the myth of the American dream among marginalized groups. 2018’s Superfly offers little more than shameless pandering to an audience who will have undoubtedly forgotten about it entirely before the summer’s over. Simultaneously exceptionally silly and aggressively bland, the movie doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a blatant cash grab. It’s not as if this material doesn’t translate to the 21st century. We just need a better translator.