Sunday, 19 August 2018

Superfly (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: Street hustler Youngblood Priest (Trevor Jackson) is thinking of making it out of the drug game. However, before he can do that, he must pull off one last job in order to have the money needed for that clean break. As he prepares for his final hustle, everything from the police to his environment to the other local drug dealers will stand between him and his freedom from the game.

Jackson may be no Ron O’Neal but he definitely brings charisma to the role, aided by how he manages to sell the street smarts of the character while keeping it within his means. Then again, he’s one of the few actors here who manages to make an impact. Jason Mitchell as his right-hand man Eddie, while it’s good to see this actor sticking around in Hollywood, is rather one-note, while Lex Scott Davis and Andrea Londo as Priest’s girlfriend and side chick respectively are so interchangeable that it’s embarrassing. Michael K. Williams as Scatter, Priest’s mentor, does adequately with the wizened hustling experience of the character, while Esai Morales as the head of a Mexican cartel comes a close second to Jackson in how well he does in his role due to the sharpened menace he gives in his delivery. 
Jennifer Morrison as a crooked detective is way too aloof to work as the direct threat she’s supposed to impose, Big Boi of OutKast brings some fun to the proceedings as the Mayor of Atlanta, and the other musical cameos from the likes of Rick Ross, Lecrae and even trap producer Zaytoven work out pretty well.

And speaking of music, if we’re going to talk about Super Fly for any lengthy amount of time, we have to get into the soundtrack. The original 1972 film is largely remembered on the basis of its music by soul legend Curtis Mayfield, and for damn good reason. Both as a singular work and as a precedent for how film soundtracks would be regarded afterwards, it is a certified classic. It even went on to influence a lot of hip-hop artists, from Ice-T to Eminem to Chance The Rapper.
Now, while the songs themselves are pure 70’s funk gold, the reason that they work as well as they do comes down to their use in context to the film at large. Mayfield’s singing about being the Pusherman and describing Youngblood Priest’s exploits in the drug game built on the film’s own themes concerning drug dealing, the people who do it and, most pointedly, why they’re doing it. It didn’t glorify the criminal enterprise, to put it simply, instead highlighting the socioeconomic barriers that stand between African-Americans and anything resembling legit employment. A lot of barriers that persist to this day.

With this in mind, the idea of getting Future, a rapper who once bragged on wax that he paid 250 grand for a hand job, to do the soundtrack for this remake seems like the complete wrong step to take. He isn’t a rapper like Kendrick Lamar (who curated the Black Panther soundtrack), Killer Mike or even older MCs like Ice Cube who describe drug dealing and gang activity as a forced necessity; he’s the kind of rapper who would try to make himself sound like a badass for doing and dealing drugs, coated in what has become expected of mainstream hip-hop braggadocio.
While the songs he brings to the film aren’t outright bad (more that they don't appeal to my personal tastes than anything else), and the compositions by Josh Atchley fit the narrative well enough, they end up serving as a big fat reminder of how sloshed and Autotune-heavy modern rap has become. That computer-enhanced groaning that Future always brings to his tracks combined with the dark and moody trap production that has basically become the sound of current pop music does not sit well with me. This only gets weirder once they decide to flat-out use songs from the original soundtrack, specifically Pusherman and the Superfly theme, which sound as great as ever but also woefully out-of-place next to the rest of the music.

But I can ultimately look past that; just because the original film is remembered primarily for its music doesn’t mean I have to judge this remake by the same standards. Dude knows I have no desire to compare Future with Curtis bloody Mayfield as far as talent goes. However, that sense of modern hip-hop aesthetic meshing poorly with the source material goes beyond just the soundtrack; it’s everywhere to be found in the visuals as well. Director X, best known nowadays for the relentlessly-memed music video for Drake’s Hotline Bling, brings a definite sense of style to the production, particularly with his rather vibrant colour palette… but the guy is most familiar with rap music videos and that could not be more obvious just from looking at this thing. The depictions of street hustlers, particularly the eyeroll-worthy ‘Snow Patrol’ gang who look like they should be in a rip-off of The Warriors in how colour-coded they are, is of the same calibre as that found in most rap videos: Nothing close to realistic, and all done to look as appealing as possible.
Doubly so for any scene that includes female actors, which range from the gratuitous (an initial scene in a strip club) to the outright softcore (a threesome in a shower that happens for no real reason at all); it’s so blatant that it doesn’t even come within a five-mile radius of being ‘sexy’. As misogynistic as the original was, it at least had one solid female performance in it that wasn’t reliant on tits and arse to have a reason to exist; this can’t even get that far. And man, the action scenes… these aren’t so much low-flash as they are one-punch fist fights, complete with overbearing percussion blasts and slow-mo camera work just to make that one punch feel heavy.

Okay, so neither the soundtrack nor the visuals are anywhere in-tune with the original; what about the scripting? Well, it’s a definite mixed bag but credit to Alex Tse for showing a modicum of ambition with his approach to the story. His writing hits all the major plot beats of the original, from Priest’s decision to leave the drug game behind to the encounter with his mentor to the run-in with the crooked cops to the avalanche of planning that leads into the finale, while updating certain elements to make it fit in the current climate. While some of the updates feel a tad trite (we get a flippant mention of “fake news” at one point), others like the inclusion of the Mexican cartels, cryptocurrency, even a modern understanding of police brutality make this feel somewhat relevant today.
However, it still suffers from the same glorification as everything else here as, for all the talk about the trap of street crime and how tough it is to get out of, it sure goes out of its way to make everything appealing. Hell, it even throws out a lot of the bigger impetuses for those turning to street crime in the first place, boiling it down to them just wanting a piece of the American Dream. I’d be railing against the forced simplicity if I wasn’t already annoyed at how lame this is as a story.

All in all, this might serve as a decent primer on just how much of the real intent behind the 1972 original has fallen on deaf ears in the decades since its release, but not a whole lot else. The acting has a couple of decent spots, namely Trevor Jackson in the lead role and Big Boi in a glorified cameo, while everyone else is on auto-pilot, the music sounds like Top 40 background noise, the visuals take all the uglier motifs of hip-hop music videos and mashes them together, and the writing takes what was a rather smart look at the hows and whys of a drug dealer into a boringly standard crime caper, albeit updated in certain places. It would’ve been silly to expect this to hold up to the original in any substantive way, but this can’t even deliver on its own terms, let alone when compared to a film that garners quite a bit of respect from me.

No comments:

Post a Comment