Power, in its varying structures – who has it; who wants it; who is a victim of the struggle to realign it – is the main hook of this throwback blaxploitation movie by Jack Hill. Pam Grier is Nurse “Coffy” Coffin, the titular heroine who has made it her mission to exact revenge on the drug-ring kingpins flooding the city with narcotics after her 11-year-old sister gets hooked on smack. She’s reached a point where she’s not looking to mess around, landing her first kill (point-blank shotgun to the face) within minutes of the opening, and it continues along this fast-paced hunt and chase sequence. Set against the backdrop of a city of many vices, Coffy initiates a chain of vendettas and hustles using her feminine wiles and sexuality; the most powerful weapons available to her.
Tired of the deeply ingrained incessant corruption and seeing the good guys who get in the way of it beaten down, Coffy takes matters into her own hands armed with a shotgun and sheer audacity. She first seduces notorious pimp and drug dealer King George before moving on to mafia boss Arturo Vitroni, at times fixing the situation for the men she encounters to destroy each other but mostly taking them out herself. A botched murder attempt lands her in a compromising situation, and she experiences betrayal on behalf of a formerly trustworthy companion gone rogue, but survivor instincts run deep and it appears she always has another card to play.
As the heroine of the movie, Coffy is at once fiery and bold – a heady mix of sex appeal and street smarts. Her name hits upon connotations of both the caffeinated kind – like the drink, she’s hot, embittered and keeps people on their toes – as well as the more obviously appropriate allusions that can be drawn from “Coffin”, considering her slow-burning murderous rampage. The relative importance of her name as well as the emphasis put on it gives her an almost superhero-like quality, albeit one set in the rough inner city of 1970s Los Angeles – and really, what better place to have a headstrong vigilante on a one-woman mission to clean up the city’s streets?
But there also remains a creeping sense of vulnerability about her. Her wrath seems to stem from her disposition and status as a carer – committed nurse, loving sister, and so on – and it is this that gives her both her fire and a singular moment of hesitation towards the close of her pursuit, one which is directly related to her capacity for devotion. Female sexuality has an unabashed light shone on it at numerous angles, and it’s never quite clear whether the position of the women of this movie is better or worse than things seem. While the men Coffy encounters come across as weak-willed, ruled by an organ other than the one in their heads, the women do tend to end up being used like pawns. It’s only when it comes to Coffy that it feels there is an element of being one step ahead and so some possibility of a change in the balance of power and control.The general tone and substance of the thing, however, doesn’t aim to dig this deep. Although there lies the significance of the blaxploitation genre in producing films with a predominantly African-American lead cast wrapped up in an ethnically diverse fictional universe, philosophising on socio-political issues is not the main thrust. It’s more of a feel-good joy ride, with laid-back funk and 70’s cool oozing from the outset; at times completely ridiculous but having so much fun with it. There’s a definite lack of polish in aspects of the acting, choreography and effects, which rears its head quite regularly, but this only adds to its charm, and it serves up a caper that’s foxy and glamourous.
The key player in the working of the entire movie is of course Grier, who set herself up for an on-screen siren legacy with an influence still felt two decades later when she took on the lead role in Tarantino’s homage to the blaxploitation genre, Jackie Brown. That potent mixture of strong-will and sass will get you places, it seems, with a whole cult following right behind.
Coffy is out on Blu-Ray now through Arrow Video.