**** out of *****
‘I killed them all,’ says the beautiful, coffee-with-cream-coloured beauty sitting on a comfy couch, cradling a mega-pump-action shotgun. ‘I don’t know how I did it. It seems like I’m in a dream and I’m still in this dream.’
Coffy (Pam Grier) is a lean, mean, killing machine with a soul that’s all woman. By day, she’s a caring, highly skilled inner-city nurse, but by night, she transforms into a show-no-mercy vigilante who takes on the underworld, pusher by pusher, pimp by pimp and gangster by gangster. Vengeance drives her, and with every explosive killing she thinks of her teenage sister, lying in a vegetative state in a rest home, the child’s mind and body decimated by drugs, forced sex and all manner of exploitation at the grubby paws of vile men from the lowest orders of their gender.
When her handsome, corrupt boyfriend, an African-American politician, seduces her with his words of hard truth tempered with racial caring (‘Our people want dope to make themselves feel better, but we’re gonna take that money and put it back in the hands of our people.’) and tenderness laced with a let-Daddy-put-it-all-right-again (‘All ya have to know, baby, is that I am your Man and I’m gonna take care of you.’), her gelato-smooth dream becomes not unlike that of fairy tale princesses and Prince Charmings. But when the silly dream of Barbie Doll acquiescence is shattered by the real truth, the dream reverts to the nightmare it’s always been. It’s the suffering necessary to put things right in the world.
Such is the blood-soaked reverie that is Jack Hill’s ground-breaking 1973 action picture Coffy, which is so thrilling, politically charged and exquisitely crafted one hesitates to slap the Blaxploitation monicker upon it to simply categorize the picture with a convenient label. There’s nothing ‘convenient’ about Hill’s picture. His smart, nasty screenplay betrays all expectations whilst kneading in the tropes of the genre when needed, but doing so in a manner that twists the necessary machinations like a pretzel-maker gone mad.
The legendary Pam Grier was already a fixture in the world of Blaxploitation when she played the title role, but this is the film that put her on the map to drive-in movie superstardom and into the hearts and minds of eager, slavering 13-year-old boys (like me, when I first saw it) of all ages (as I have been and am now over 40 years later and with well over 20 viewings of this film behind me).
And never mind just the lads, Grier was a hero to women all over the world. Not only was she a classic screen beauty, but her lithe form was inextricably linked to her prowess as an actress. Nobody moved on screen like Grier; she embodied her character here (and subsequent roles) with the kind of skill that most actresses can only dream about. In Coffy she represented a heroic figure to women of all ages and races because she brought grace, intelligence and humanity to her ass-kicking. Grier embodied the ultimate feminist femme fatales she played with Dirty Harry cool and Veronica Lake sex appeal, all with the soul of Cicely Tyson. There’s never been anyone like her, and her performance in Coffy is perfectly matched to the great Jack Hill’s inspired writing and stunning directorial aplomb.
Watching the film again on the Arrow Blu-Ray, so soon after suffering through the loathsomely directed contemporary smash hit Furious 7, I was again reminded how genuinely talented filmmakers like Jack Hill were. God knows, Quentin Tarantino recognizes this, but we’re stuck in a horrible rut of critics, studios and ADHD-afflicted audiences responding positively to herky-jerky movies that have no sense of spatial geography because they employ a jumble of edits driven, not by story or even character-related emotion, but by sound – screeches, thuds and overwrought scores. Coffy has one terrific action set-piece after another that puts most current pictures to shame. (It’s also got the cool musical styling of soul-funk-jazz composer Roy Ayers working with the film’s visuals instead of noisily, annoyingly driving them.)
There’s an astonishing chase scene involving Pam Grier on foot as corrupt cops in their black and white cruisers pursue her on, across and through a crazy-ass Los Angeles freeway and eventually into a wide-open rail-line storage field, which is so edge-of-the-seat thrilling because Hill uses superbly composed wide master shots, spare mediums and close-ups only when necessary. We see real choreography and real danger. There isn’t a single frame of Furious 7 and most other modern pictures of its ilk that can match the sheer virtuosity of Jack Hill’s meagerly budgeted Coffy.
It’s not a franchise, it’s a film.