Grindhouse Classics : “Coffy”

Posted: March 21, 2011 in movies
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

When people ask me what my all-time favorite blaxploitation flick is, the question is a serious a serious no-brainer. Oh, sure, there are plenty of great ones to choose from —Black Caesar, Across 110th Street, Shaft, Foxy Brown — the list of classics is nearly endless. But the one flick that stands out above all the others, the one that holds the title of not only the greatest of all blaxploitationers, but also one of the very best revenge movies ever made, is Jack Hill’s incomparable 1973 Pam Grier starring vehicle Coffy. This is the one that set the standard, folks, and frankly it has yet to be matched.

The story’s simple enough — when the younger sister of hard-working inner-city nurse Coffy (we never get her first name), better known as “Coffy,” is sent into comatose shock after shooting up some bad smack, our intrepid (and deadly sexy) heroine is determined to bring down the whole fucking criminal underworld all by herself. That’s bravado, people. She’s got no skills, no training, just a bad attitude and a body to die for.  The chain leads way higher than even she could have guessed, though — all the way from street dealers to big-time pimps to Italian mobsters out of Vegas to crooked cops right to the would-be congressman she’s sleeping with!

Simple story? Hell yeah. All the best are. But if you’ve got the right the woman for the job, even the simplest set-ups can leave you gripped to the screen. And Grier was definitely more than up to the task. Hill (one of the great unsung heroes of exploitation moviemaking) had worked with Grier on a couple of Roger Corman women-in-prison productions shot on the cheap in the Philippines (The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage, to be precise) and figured she was ready to graduate from being a supporting player as the stereotypical bad-ass-butch-black-woman-in-stir to her own starring turn, and damn was he right.  Pam’s not only a total sexual dynamo here (she gets naked three separate times in the first 15 minutes alone), she’s a supernatural force of pure fucking vengeance. Her conscience troubles her a bit more than you’d expect in a film like this (check out her “the past few days seem like a dream” monologue early on to her cop friend Carter), but she can put that in a locked drawer when she needs to and just plain kick ass. You always get the feeling revenge is gonna be bittersweet for Coffy, though, because Grier gives such a tellingly multi-dimensional performance (and the long slow fadeaway of her walking, battered and bruised after killing all the bad guys (come on, did you ever doubt she would?), along a lonely,  early-morning beach at the end as the credits roll provides a surprisingly downbeat ending that the genre would later airbrush out of things as these films became more formulaic) that’s always grounded in reality (and yes, reality itself would become another casualty of this genre’s success as time wore on). In short, Grier’s  Coffy is not some cartoonish superhero, but a real woman dealing with an extraordinary set of circumstances and trapped in a situation beyond her control that she’d rather not be a part of. Sure, she hams it up a bit when going undercover as a Jamaican prostitute to grab the attention of mega-pimp King George (who’s even got his own theme song!), but even in the midst of the most over-the-top scenes here, like the notorious cat fight (you knew there had to be one) at George’s pad, there’s always something lurking under the surface in Pam’s extraordinary performance. She’s a bad-ass mama out for revenge with soul, a real life flesh-and-blood heroine rather than a cardboard cut-out. She’s not a super-woman here (although she’s got a super-woman body — damn, I’ll quit obsessing over it now), but if conscripted into a situation where that’s what she’s gotta be, then goddamn if she isn’t gonna be it, and worry about the consequences later.

There are some damn fine supporting turns here as well, to be sure — Booker Bradshaw as sleazy Councilman-Soon-To-Be-Congressman  Brunswick, Sid Haig as — well, the kind of hired-muscle-with-a-perv-streak he always did so well at the time — but really this is Pam’s show all the way. From the minute she blows that pusher’s head off with a shotgun  (and this is also surprisingly violent for a film of this type — another element that would be toned down as the blaxploitation formula took hold) in the film’s opening scene (which would later be aped by effects legend Tom Savini in the legendary head-shot scene in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead), she absolutely owns this motherfucker from start to finish. Honestly, if Grier’s Coffy said “you can fuck me, but I might kill you afterwards if I feel like it”, you’d be up for taking the risk. That’s how undeniable she is here.  I can’t think of higher praise than that.

Hill and Grier would be back less than a year later with Foxy Brown, which essentially tells the same story with a bigger budget, less graphic violence, less nudity, and frankly less heart and realism. It’s still a damn fine flick, but it’s a sanitized, de-fanged version of what you see here. This is the pure, grade-A, 100-proof stuff.

Coffy is available on DVD from MGM as part of its Soul Cinema line. It features a nicely-done full-frame transfer, a solid stereo audio track, the original theatrical trailer, and a feature-length commentary from Jack Hill that’s absolutely gripping listening. It’s also playing free this month on Impact Action On Demand, available on most cable and satellite systems. I’m assuming most readers of this blog will have seen this before, probably numerous times, but if it’s been awhile, give it a go again — you’ll be very pleasantly surprised at what a bass-knuckled punch it still packs even after all these years. They just plain don’t make ’em like this anymore — and truth be told, even though Coffy was a solid box-office success, they never made ’em quite like this again even back in the day. This isn’t just “soul cinema,” it’s heart, soul, blood, and guts cinema. It’s everything you love exploitation films for, combined with everything that a lot of it (and everything else on celluloid, be it from Hollywood or the independents) is missing. It’s uncompromising, multi-faceted, honest and arresting art, folks. It’s complex in spite of  its simplicity and provides no easy answers or feel-good moments. It’s a genre movie for grown-ups that doesn’t insult your intelligence and for once provides more steak than sizzle (although there’s plenty of that, too). It’s the straight dope and it’ll hook you forever.

Comments
  1. DJ Greene says:

    I love the Roy Ayers soundtrack in this as well. The original LP goes for $$$.

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