"The Return of Superfly" is a dog of a film that neither celebrates nor improves on the "blaxploitation" films of the '70s, but merely rips them off. It does seem, however, to have been made with a 1972 budget. How else to account for the level of cheapness that permeates this exploration of a power struggle in the Harlem drug culture? Even the stakes seem ridiculously small: A dozen people die and assorted businesses are blown up, all over what looks like a half kilo of cocaine! Surely the budget could have provided for a few more pounds of flour.
As the title suggests, "Return" is a sequel of sorts, with the outlaw-hero named Priest coming back to Harlem after spending 18 years between movies in Paris, where his only problem was "deciding where to eat dinner." Priest, underwritten by the money he ripped off in the first film, has come back a changed man, literally: Young and studly Nathan Purdee replaces Ron O'Neal, probably because Granddaddyfly doesn't have the same resonance on a marquee. Other than that, Priest exudes a familiar macho bravado and a decided "Ebony Man" fashion sensibility.
The plot: Though long "out of the life," Priest returns to New York when his drug kingpin buddy Eddie is gunned down, along with a half-dozen helpmates, by a rival drug kingpin. After reminiscing about "the golden age of hustling," Priest sets about his nasty business, hardly breaking a sweat or putting a crease in his silk suits ("Man, you're still one slick sheet of ice," says an admiring pal as he cooks up some crack).
Why Priest is out to avenge Eddie is never made quite clear, but his MO involves kidnapping a rival hit man who has an annoying penchant for whinnying like Mr. Ed; spiking the crack to create escalating tensions between dealers and dopers; and dealing with corrupt white policemen, feds and lawyers. Along the way, Priest manages a bloodless affair with a cocktail hostess (Margaret Avery, looking like she's overloaded with Valium).
While "Return of Superfly" adds an African American cast to a new wave of Italian American and Irish American gangster chronicles, it suffers from the basic fact that director Sig Shore is no Martin Scorsese or Joel Coen, much less Gordon Parks Jr. (who directed the original "Superfly"). Worse, Shore couldn't decide how to play (or how to pay for it) because the film's "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka" laughs are accidental and it never even approaches the hard-core tension of its progenitor. The violence this go-round, mostly of the pop-pop-pop exploding-pellet variety, seems particularly archaic in the wake of television shows such as "Miami Vice," "Wiseguy" and "DEA."
The only element that connects the two "Superflies" is the music of Curtis Mayfield: His slinky singing and rough-edged songs fuel a soundtrack that includes a healthy dose of rap tunes. When a score outshines the film it's in service to, that's usually a bad sign. Seek out the original "Superfly" on video and figure this turkey won't last to Thanksgiving.
The Return of Superfly, at area theaters, is rated R and contains some violence and explicit language.