It doesn’t matter how smart you are if you’re constantly surrounded by armed stupidity. That’s the wise revelation that launches “SuperFly,” the new remake of the 1972 blaxploitation classic starring Ron O’Neal.
In both versions, a successful coke dealer named Priest decides to pull off one last job before retiring from the drug business, only to find himself in a Chinese finger trap: The harder he tries to get out, the more he’s pulled back in.
Helmed by music video visionary Director X (making his feature debut) and written by Alex Tse (“Watchmen”), “SuperFly” is a delightful surprise: funny, brutal, stylish, and thoughtful. It updates the blaxploitation genre with wit and resonance: Police brutality is an inescapable scourge in Priest’s Atlanta, and our hero dispatches one of his enemies while toppling over a Confederate statue.
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Sure, young star Trevor Jackson (“Grown-ish,” “American Crime”) can’t fill O’Neal’s effortlessly dapper, achingly world-weary shoes, and few movie soundtracks can rival Curtis Mayfield’s legendary album for the first “Super Fly.” But this is a remake worthy of its original.
Even its familiar themes eventually give way to greater complexity: The asset that gives Priest his edge in the streets is his discretion, i.e., the ability to stay under the radar. But as his aspirations grow bigger — there’s no greater ambition than leaving the drug life behind in Priest’s world — his friends want a bigger slice of the pie, a rival gang grows hostile, the cartel from whom Priest buys his product won’t let him retire, and the police catch on.
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Most compellingly, Priest’s best friend Eddie (Jason Mitchell, nearly stealing the picture as he did in “Straight Outta Compton) throws some cold water on Priest’s dream of leaving everything he knows behind. The debate between their opposing viewpoints, about whether it’s safer to run or stay as a black man in America, is brief but fascinating. As in the original, Priest’s final undertaking is complicated, yet wholly comprehensible.
And true to its roots, “SuperFly” is also about flair and humor, which it has in spades. This is a movie that knows how to make the most of an egg-white snakeskin jacket, as well as a supporting role by Outkast’s Big Boi. A dirty cop singing Chamillionaire’s “Ridin,'” about racial profiling by the police, had my screening howling in laughter. Similarly striking is the spectacle of the adversarial gang, Snow Patrol (led by Rick Ross and Allen Maldonado), in head-to-toe, toothpaste-commercial white: A swell of urban Stormtroopers in chalk-colored clothes, cars, even a hearse.
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Jackson isn’t particularly emotive on his own, but he has such stirring, naturalistic chemistry with his co-stars — Mitchell, Michael K. Williams (playing his mentor, Scatter), and Lex Scott Davis and Andrea Londo (playing the two girlfriends in his domestic triad) — that I feared for Priest’s loved one’s lives whenever they were on screen.
“SuperFly” is the first blaxploitation remake to come out of the gate this decade; newer editions of “Shaft,” “Cleopatra Jones,” and “Foxy Brown” are currently in the works. Despite the all-around excellence of “SuperFly,” I’m not sure we need to resurrect the 70s right now. But as long as we’re mired in franchise culture, you could do far worse than a double feature of “SuperFly” and “Ocean’s 8” — crime movies where the historically disenfranchised groups are finally encouraged to enjoy revenge.