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'SuperFly' review: Slick, superficial update of the blaxploitation classic

Jason Mitchell, left, and Trevor Jackson star in

Jason Mitchell, left, and Trevor Jackson star in "SuperFly." Photo Credit: CTMG Inc. / Quantrell D. Colbert

PLOT An Atlanta drug dealer lays plans for his biggest and final score.

CAST Trevor Jackson, Jason Mitchell, Jennifer Morrison

RATED R (violence, sexuality and language)

LENGTH 1:56

BOTTOM LINE A down-and-dirty blaxploitation classic gets a slick, superficial update.

Gloss replaces grit in the remake of “Super Fly,” Gordon Parks Jr.’s 1972 blaxploitation landmark about a Harlem cocaine dealer named Priest, desperately trying to make a big score and leave the business. The plot remains the same, as do some key scenes and characters, but the old aura of anger and bitterness is replaced by flash, polish and of-the-moment stylization by music-video veteran director X. Curtis Mayfield’s yearning soul songs are switched out for Future’s high-tech hip-hop tracks.

The old movie was for grown-ups; the new movie is for kids. The location is no longer dreary New York City but the candy-colored current hot spot of Atlanta. Priest, originally played by Ron O’Neal as a midlevel pusher staring down the barrel of 40, is now played by 21-year-old Trevor Jackson as a smooth-talking dandy. His newly named Youngblood Priest operates on charm, patience and mountains of intel gathered on various gangsters, politicians and cops. About all the two Priests share is a hairdo.

For all that, “SuperFly” hasn’t totally abandoned its pulp roots. Priest’s martial-arts reflexes are preposterously fast (yes, he literally dodged that bullet). His enemies, a drug ring called the Snow Patrol, wear eye-catching white outfits, as if they were a gang from “The Warriors.” The supporting characters are standard issue but vividly rendered: Eddie, Priest’s jocular business partner, is played by a very good Jason Mitchell (“Straight Outta Compton”) while Jennifer Morrison and Brian Durkin put a snide spin on their dirty-cop roles. The nuance-free script, by Alex Tse, sometimes results in an unintentional laugh, but the film overall is more entertaining than not.

Director X (Rihanna’s “Work,” among others) mostly sticks to now-familiar hip-hop notions of wealth and sophistication — men in fur, women in nothing. Here and there, though, he shows glimmers of originality and humor. A car chase topples what looks like a Confederate Army statue; a threesome in a shower ends with a triumphant group pose straight from a Hustler wall calendar. A little more of Director X’s personality could have given “SuperFly” a more distinctive flair.

Where the original felt almost like documentary, the new film is pure fantasy. Only once does it tap into a sense of rage and resentment, when Eddie tells Priest that his dreams of wealth, independence and freedom are illusory. “We’re black men,” he says. “There’s nowhere safe for us on the planet.”

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