Back in my misspent youth, I watched — and accumulated — something of a stack of cinematic oddities. Exploitation films, cult films, independent films, and some stuff that I can’t begin to attempt to categorise. Since having kids, many of these have languished on high shelves because finding the time to watch them has become something of a challenge.
While putting together my recent Five Things post, however, it occurred to me that I do now have time to revisit some of these films. And what better place to start than Coffy?
Pam Grier plays the title character, a nurse whose younger sister is hospitalised by a heroin overdose. With the law apparently unable to take action, Coffy sets out to bring down the underworld. By herself.
And that’s pretty much all there is as far as the plot is concerned. That said, a simple plot well executed is better by far than a narrative that becomes bogged down in excessive complexity.
Coffy is an incredibly well executed film, and one that keeps you gripped for the entirety of its running time.
Jack Hill, who wrote and directed the film, launched his career with Roger Corman’s AIP studios and while he neither moved beyond the exploitation genres nor made a lot of films he was a demonstrably better filmmaker than many of his genre peers. This is most clearly apparent with with Coffy which he wrote with Pam Grier specifically in mind. He’d previously worked with Grier on both The Big Bird Cage and The Big Doll House but I doubt even Hill had realised what a superb performance she
would deliver as a shotgun-wielding vigilante determined to take down the whole of the underworld.
The film, of course, nods towards all of the genre cliches that you would expect but manages to rise above the average Blaxploitation film with some superbly outrageous fashion choices, spectacularly over the top action scenes and lashings of nudity and plenty of violence, some of which is surprisingly and disturbingly brutal.
What really makes the film stand out, though, is the fact that Hill is able to to reverse many of the stereotypes of the time by putting a female character at the centre of the film. Coffy is not just a nominal lead, either, but she is also both determined and proactive and not looking for help from anyone.
This, combined with a script that managed to also comment on race, corruption and the damage cause by drugs made Coffy a huge success, both financially and critically, and the film that established Pam Grier as a genre icon.