Sugarman has done rather well as a drug dealer, well enough to hang out in swanky clubs and surround himself with obedient lackeys and attractive women. There's nothing he needs that he doesn't already have, so when one of his customers – a persistent dude named Grover – tries to interest him in a woman who will do just about anything for a serious hit, he's just not interested. At least until he claps eyes on the woman. Then he's real interested. As would I be. All three of them thus head over to Grover's place, where the girl pulls a sawn-off shotgun and sticks it in Sugarman's face. "This is the end of your rotten life, you motherfuckin' dope pusher," she angrily spits before blowing his head off. And I'm not being figurative for dramatic effect here. When she shoots this particular motherfuckin' dope pusher in the face, his head literally explodes. She then sticks enough drugs into Gover's veins to trigger a fatal overdose. The woman's name is Coffy, and these are the guys who got her 11-year-old sister LuBelle hooked on smack.
When Coffy is not wreaking revenge on those who have wronged her family, she's helping to save presumably more worthy lives as a nurse. Still carrying flame for her is patrol officer Carter Brown, a former boyfriend of Coffy's and probably the nicest guy on the force. Why she's dating slick city councilman Howard Brunswick instead of him is anybody's guess. The level-headed Carter even manages to put Coffy's hatred of everyone involved in the supply of hard drugs into a realistic social perspective. But when he refuses to go along with his colleagues and get on the criminal payroll, he takes a baseball bat beating so serious that it leaves him in a brain damaged coma. With a new set of criminal scumbags now the target of her vengeful ire, Coffy sets her sights on a brightly dressed pimp named King George and uses him to get close mafia drug and prostitute kingpin Arturo Vitroni. This time, however, things do not quite go Coffy's way.
Coffy is the sort of exploitation movie that gives exploitation movies their good name. Its credentials are impeccable. It was written and directed by exploitation maestro Jack Hill for exploitation movie house American International Pictures and stars the queen of low budget 70s exploitation cinema Pam Grier. And yes, I'm well aware that I just used the word exploitation five times in two sentences. No way to avoid it. The film is also, in case you somehow failed to pick this up from the accompanying frame grabs, a top flight example of Blaxploitation cinema, albeit one whose director was white. Then again, back in the early 70s the American film industry was still almost exclusively a white male preserve, and black directors were almost as rare as female ones. The rich whitey bigots who bankrolled black movies only did so at all because they thought their might be some dosh in it for them. There was, as it happened. More than they expected.
Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, Pam Grier. Ah, Pam Grier. I came late to Pam's films, too late to develop the sort of adolescent crush I just know I'd have had if I'd lied my way into the likes of Coffy in my early teens. Hell, even all these years later Pam still makes me go just a teeny bit weak at the knees. This was the film that really established her rep as 'the baddest one-chick hit-squad that ever hit town'. I'm quoting the film's poster here, and just this once see no reason to question its commercial hyperbole. Pam was great looking, Pam was hot, but Pam was also badass and Pam didn't take any shit. And as well as having some serious screen presence, Pam was and still is a damned fine actress, and her performance here goes some way beyond the theoretical demands of such a role – we'll turn a blind eye to her mercifully brief stab at a Jamaican accent.
Quentin Tarantino has called Grier the first female action star and he may well be right, at least within the realms of American cinema. With even roles for black leading men largely confined to racially themed dramas or low budget films targeted at a specifically black audience, the very idea of casting an unknown black actress in a role usually reserved for chisel-faced white men was a mother of a gamble. Hell, even today in these supposedly more enlightened times, it's hard to imagine such a film being green-lighted. Yet Coffy made a small fortune and led directly to Hill and Pam Grier re-uniting to create a second cult favourite the following year in the shape of Foxy Brown.
Hill's determination to deliver more than required by the Blaxploitation brief is evident in just about every scene. The dialogue is thoughtful and frequently rather smart, and while Hill's focus on his characters may have got up the nose of the studio bosses, the net result is that you genuinely give a crap about what happens to them. And I'm not just talking about Coffy here. Every role in the film is cast with care, and the performances of even the supporting players are way more impressive than the genre norm. I'll give a special shout for William Elliott's low key turn as Carter and particularly Carol Lawson's convincingly wired former prostitute Priscilla. Hill regular Sid Haig invests Armenian thug Omar with a palpable level of physical threat, and Robert DoQui brings enough humanity to pimping King George for us to really feel for him when – in a scene of wincing brutality – his criminal lifestyle blows up in his face.
But perhaps the coolest thing about Coffy is that the title character is grounded from the start in reality. She's no martial arts master, nor is she blessed with the superhuman invulnerability of a Schwarzenegger, a Stallone or even a Bruce Willis. With a gun in her hand and fury in her heart she can take on the bad guys and escape physically intact, but the experience leaves her visibly twitching in a state of nervous exhaustion. She's wily enough to fashion makeshift weapons out of whatever comes to hand, and confronted by Priscilla's sizeable and angrily projective companion, she knows she's outmatched and thus throws a couple of household utensils at her and scarpers. And when she gets hit, it hurts. In that respect she's a lot more like us than the vast majority of action heroes I could name, irrespective of differences in race or gender.
Coffy is shining example of why the best exploitation cinema can hold its own against the more prestigious studio projects. Yes, it has the expected quota of nudity and extreme violence, but it's also smarter, classier and frankly more rewarding than a sizeable percentage of its bigger budgeted brethren, and where they trod water, Coffy broke new ground. It's hugely entertaining, smartly assembled and cares for its characters, and when it comes to action heroes, well frankly you can keep your Rambos, your Transporters and your posturing Expendables. Give me Coffy! Now!
Oh hell, it's getting so that when it comes to this bit of our disc reviews, all I really have to write is this: it's an Arrow disc. By know you should know what to expect, so this is primarily for those who've not yet got around to buying an Arrow Blu-ray release. Seriously, who are you people? I realise that I should know better by now, but years of watching these movies on first or second generation VHS still prompts low expectations for their Blu-ray incarnation, and time after time Arrow releases have come along to slap some sense into me. Coffy looks great here, and this is a film that throws down a serious challenge by having so many scenes set at night and having its dark skinned characters cast into shadow. Yet the picture is consistently sharp and detailed, the contrast nicely balanced, the black levels crisp, and there is far better than expected shadow detail. Colour is lively, particularly in the daylight scenes (King George's clothing just leaps from the screen) and the visible film grain feels just right. The print itself is spotless and sits rigidly in frame with no hint of jitter. Excellent.
The Linear PCM mono 2.0 soundtrack is in equally fine shape. Sure, the dynamic range is more restricted than you'll find on modern DTS track, with a slight treble bias and little bass response, but the dialogue is clear, Roy Ayres' funkadelic soundtrack nicely rendered (initially a little resistant, I was eventually seduced by the main title song, Coffy Baby and keep catching myself singing it) and there's no trace of damage intrusive hiss or crackle.
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired are also included, though do sometimes abbreviate the dialogue a tad (not as unusual as you might think).
Commentary with Jack Hill
There's always a danger that when left alone in the commentary booth, a director might run dry for extended periods, but that's never the case with the talented and always interesting Mr. Hill. There's not a dull spot here, and despite being happy with the film and his own work on it, there's not a whiff of self-congratulation in Hill's reflections. Indeed, he goes out of his way to champion the contribution of his actors, providing background info on a number of them and highlighting the things that they brought to the film. He has a number of digs at AIP studio bosses, branding them racist idiots and revealing that they generally despised directors and regarded them only as a 'necessary evil'. He does pick up on Pam's 'preposterous' Jamaican accent but otherwise has nothing but praise for the talents of his leading lady. The purpose of a number of specific shots and costume choices is outlined (and always makes complete sense) and I, for one, was surprised to discover that elements were borrowed from The Crucible and Richard III. And this is just a small sample of the wealth of information you'll find on the film and its making here. Superb.
A Taste of Coffy with Jack Hill (18:49)
An interview with writer-director Jack Hill that gives you a welcome chance to put a face to the voice. As you'd expect, Hill proves to be a most engaging interviewee, but much of what he talks about here could almost have been lifted straight from the commentary, and if you listened to that first you'll find yourself experiencing some serious déjà-vu. There is some expansion on some points and the odd bit of new info, so it's still worth checking out.
Pam Grier: The Baddest Chick in Town! (17:38)
Oh cool. Pam Grier is interviewed about her life, her career and especially her work for AIP and with Jack Hill in particular. A talkative and forthright interviewee, she covers a lot of ground here, including the elements that she brought to Coffy and Foxy Brown, her first meeting with Hill, her working relationship with Sid Haig, the inspiration she drew from the women around her when growing up, and plenty more. She reveals that hunting was part of her formative years and she thus knew how to handle guns before she ever brandished one in a film, and apparently tells the men she dates, "Don't worry about my guns, just worry about my chainsaw." Eek.
An utterly enthralling video essay by author Mikel J. Koven that charts the history and development of the Blaxploitation genre. Kicking off with a grim reminder of a time when black characters were played by white actors in black face, Koven explores the five major black stereotypes that came to pass in 30s cinema and the political and cultural changes that led to the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s and beyond. I learned a lot here, and was intrigued by the reason Koven gives for not liking Shaft – Blaxploitation films, he argues, are about sticking it to the man, but in Shaft he IS the man. Great stuff.
Theatrical Trailer (2:01)
Pam Grier seduces, fights and shoots in a pacy trailer with a few too many spoilers for people with good memories to safely watch just before sitting down for the movie.
16 promotional stills. Sorry, but there's nothing more to say on this one.
Also in the box is a Booklet containing a solid essay on the film by Cullen Gallagher, and a profile of the delectable Pam by Yvonne D. Sims, plus stills and film credits.
A great exploitation movie. A great Blaxploitation movie. A great Jack Hill and Pam Grier movie. Yeah, I liked Coffy a lot, and this is the version we've been waiting for. Splendid transfer, excellent extras, another Arrow Video must-have.