By Liam Lacey
Though it can’t match the Michael Mann-level menace and poetic rapture it aspires to, the new Atlanta-set Superfly is certainly watchable. Along with its set-piece fantasies of lavishness and violence, it features a flavourful cast of drug dealers, and stars the charismatic baby-faced Trevor Jackson (Grown-ish, American Crime) as Youngblood Priest, a prince of the cocaine trade, quietly regal in a slick pompadour and body-hugging dark leather.
Rather than the typical swagger and brutality, Priest uses information, fast-talking and a low profile to (barely) maintain control over his team of coke dealers. His friendly rivals are an organization called The Snow Patrol, whose members dress all in white, drive long white cars, wield co-ordinated white automatic weapons and are ruled by a corpulent man in a white top hat and white fur (Atkins Estimond), the better to offset his gold grill, chains, and rings. If you think this is ostentatious behaviour for drug dealers, don’t worry: the white cops who should be arresting them are all on the take.
An early scene in a strip club with a mezzanine level captures the spirit of gross indulgence, where women, like the chains and fat cigars, are status-symbol accessories: the music throbs, the thonged buttocks shiver, and the gangsters toss bills in the air like confetti. Very bad and bougie.
Superfly is directed by Canadian Julien Christian Lutz, a.k.a. Director X, a director who has created hypnotic, kaleidoscopic music videos for Kanye West, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, Justin Bieber, Drake and Rihanna. And, yes, it often feels like a series of luxurious videos with some connecting dialogue.
There are nods to the original Super Fly, directed by Gordon Parks Jr. in a disciplined low-budget close-up style but an entirely different aesthetic. The original movie, starring the gravely dignified Ron O’Neal (he later did Shakespeare at Stratford, Ontario) was harsh and spare.
While it had its materialistic fantasy elements, it also showed the contrast between the squalor Youngblood has escaped — the trash-strewn streets of Harlem where Priest drives his silver El Dorado Cadillac. It was a classic noir story of a crime boss deciding, after one more score, to get out of the game and off the mean streets.
But the new movie is set in Atlanta, which through the trap-rap music scene has become a new centre of African-American culture. The trouble is, it just doesn’t look that tough, and the new Priest seems more like a prince escaping his palace that someone getting out of a dirty game. There’s a higher body count but characters live not in cramped apartments but in mansions (including producer Rick Ross’s actual monster home as the Snow Patrol’s headquarters).
While the 1970s Priest had two girlfriends he was cheating on, today’s Youngblood lives openly with both his lovers, the African-American Georgia (Lex Scott Davis) who runs an art gallery, and the Latina strip-club manager, Cynthia (Andrea Londo). When their pretty bodies gather under the shower together, you imagine they have a set of customized voice-controlled shower settings that accommodate them all. The grit shows up when Priest makes trips to El Paso, and then Juarez, Mexico, in an effort to subvert his mentor and karate instructor (a typically great Michael K. Williams) and go directly to the Mexican suppliers.
The soundtrack, assembled and produced by auto-crooning Atlanta star Future, adds emotional texture (a good gospel-rap funeral scene) and makes a few nods to the monumental Curtis Mayfield soundtrack from the original (Pusherman, Freddie’s Dead).
If Jackson’s troubled Prince is a bit lightweight, the supplementary performances are colourful: Jason Mitchell (Mudbound) is the funny but potentially disastrous sidekick (think Joe Pesci), and the factotum, Fat Freddie (Jacob Ming-Trent) is the resentful underling no gang needs. The Mexican gangsters include Esai Morales. The dirty white cops include a woman (Jennifer Morrison) who gives her non-stereotypical role some real bite.
While pleasing to the eyeballs in its well-composed slo-mo sequences, Superfly is poorly served by Watchmen writer Alex Tse’s choppy, derivative script. The over-padded narrative provides a few brutal shocks but no real momentum as it traces the shifting alliances between gangs and cops and narcos surrounding Priest.
Ultimately, the clothes and music in Superfly are more memorable than the bloody shoot-outs and generic car chases. You don’t want to risk getting too literal about the morality of gangster dramas but, possibly, Priest could have been motivated by an awareness that the drugs he sells also destroy lives. Here, the drugs are simply exchanged for wads of money and then simply disappear somewhere.
Superfly. Directed by Director X. Written by Alex Tse. Starring Trevor Jackson, Jason Mitchell, Michael Kenneth Williams. Opens wide June 15.