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‘Superfly’ Review: Director X Delivers a Fun, Swaggering, Violent Update of a Blaxploitation Classic

The music video auteur behind "Hotline Bling" reaches into the past with some help from the Future, delivering a subversive summer surprise.

Trevor Jackson Superfly

Trevor Jackson in “Superfly”

Sony

There’s a lot of snappy dialogue in “Superfly,” Director X’s fun, swaggering, and violent update of the 1972 blaxploitation classic, but one quote in particular follows the film’s hero like some kind of thug life phantom: “It doesn’t matter how smart you are in a world of stupid motherfuckers.” That’s the crux of the problem for Youngblood Priest, the savviest coke dealer in all of Atlanta — he’s the best player in a game that no one can ever win (or even hope to survive).

It doesn’t matter how careful you are, or how rich you get, because someone in the drug trade is always on the brink of cutting you down. Maybe it’s that trigger-happy kid from the local gang who’s always looking for some petty excuse to unload his Glock. Maybe it’s those crooked local cops who shoot innocent black men for sport, or blackmail them for obscene amounts of money. Maybe it’s the Mexican cartel lord who likes to throw employees out the door of his private plane, and murder his enemies by emulsifying them into a blood-red turd of goo. It doesn’t matter. As one especially wise character puts it: “Dance with the evil long enough and he’s going to step on your feet.”

With this subversive summer surprise that reaches into the past with some help from the Future (the “Jumpman” rapper producing the film and curating its soundtrack), Director X relocates the action from Harlem to the ATL while keeping the gist of the original intact. Hyper-current as it is, this “Super Fly” remake is still the story of an enterprising young man who’s trying to escape the cycles of violence that rule the world around him. Played to smooth-tongued perfection by “Black-ish” star Trevor Jackson, we like Priest from the first time the camera tracks him “Goodfellas” style through the corridors of an Atlanta garage. We like him even more after he walks up to the most armed and aggro gangster in the place and sweet talks some humility into him; threading the needle between charm and danger, it’s one of the sharpest moments in Alex Tse’s uneven script.

Priest has been working these streets since he was 11, and he knows shortcuts that most people can’t even see. He knows the best trauma center in the city. He knows what church your auntie goes to, and even what she prayed for last Sunday. He knows how to part his luscious hair like Prince circa 2006, and to satisfy his libido on the up-and-up (in an eminently baller tweak to the original, Priest trades in a secret sidepiece for a polyamorous situation where two beautiful women are always waiting in bed for him when he gets home).

Jackson sells us on all of this in an instant, his silky voice seldom rising above a whisper. Priest is a hustler with the flash of a disposable camera, but he never overdoes it — even when he’s somehow managing to pull off a soldier jacket that he must’ve borrowed from Chris Martin’s tour wardrobe, all that style is just a warning to his enemies that he’s not your average hood, and maybe also a reminder to himself that he doesn’t really belong here.

Priest stands out from the crowd at the city’s hottest strip club, where bills rain from the sky and a group of tetchy gangsters stand on the balcony dressed in white like they’re cos-playing “Belly.” These idiots call themselves “Snow Patrol” (presumably because they’re huge fans of the cheesy, third-tier British rock band of the same name), and they need to move a lot of money to keep up with their dry-cleaning bills. When Juju (Kallan Rashad Walker), a rash and ambitious young member of their ranks, tries to kill Priest for no reason, he kickstarts a chain of events that pushes our hero to the breaking point. “This wasn’t the first time I’ve been shot at,” he says, “but it’s gotta be the last.”

“Superfly”

But first, Priest has to slow-motion Judo fight with Juju, dodging bullets like he’s the only guy in Atlanta who knows they’re living in the Matrix. It’s a stylistic choice that comes out of nowhere, Director X (aka Julien Christian Lutz) dropping it into the mix just after he’s established a steady vibe that feels like a “Grand Theft Auto” game designed by Migos. But that’s just how this “Superfly” rolls, code-switching between genres at the drop of a hat as it tries to shake free from the same restraints that box in its characters. The approach works, even (or because) it means that a single 20-minute stretch of the third act manages to contain an apartment shootout, a Lamborghini chase, some hip-hop at a funeral, a hilarious, brutal twist in the telenovela side-plot about a Mexican drug cartel, and a Big Boi cameo that will hopefully presage a second career in politics.

It works because the characters keep things anchored to some kind of dramatic reality. More famous for his music videos (e.g. Drake’s “Hotline Bling”) than his previous narrative features (which include 2015’s “Across the Line,” a solid drama about the struggles of a black hockey player), Director X impresses by letting his cast take the wheel. The film has its flair — the night exteriors are rendered with a high frame-rate blur that channels Michael Mann, the action set-pieces are well-staged for such a run-and-gun production (even if Snow Patrol look kinda silly dressed up like the ski troops from “Inception”), and an extended three-way in Priest’s shower is shot like a scene out of “300” — but “Superfly” puts its people first.

And it’s a memorable, well-rendered group. In a brilliant casting decision, Priest’s screw-up best friend and partner-in-crime is “Mudbound” and “Straight Outta Compton” breakout Jason Mitchell, the kind of generational talent who raises everyone’s game; his Eddie is both the movie’s comic relief and its soul. The great Michael Kenneth Williams inevitably channels his work on “The Wire” as Scatter, Priest’s drug supply and dojo master. Lex Scott Davis is the more privileged of Priest’s two girlfriends (the other is Andrea Londo), and finds rare moments of grace to fight back against a movie in which women are mostly stereotypes, shrews, and sex dolls.

Which brings us back to the biggest thing that this “Superfly” has in common with Gordon Parks, Jr.’s original: They both glamorize the gangster lifestyle, even as their heroes do everything in their power to escape it. Being the slyest coke dealer in Atlanta seems terrible, except for when it’s completely awesome. Of course, these characters are just making the best of the hand they’ve been dealt, and Jackson’s focused performance sells us on the idea that Priest would give it all up for a new start in a place where guns aren’t the subtext beneath every conversation.

Even when things spin out of control, and Tse’s script crams enough plot for an entire season of “Breaking Bad” into the last act (another thing this remake has in common with its source material), you never lose track of where Priest is trying to go, or why he’s trying to get there. Yeah, he’s the smartest guy in a world of stupid motherfuckers, but he’s also got real pride in a world where everyone else is busy feeding their egos. That’s what makes him Superfly.

Grade: B-

“Superfly” opens in theaters on June 13th.

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