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By the early 1970’s, African-American movies were beginning to find an audience beyond the niche that Melvin Van Peebles‘ breakout Sweet Sweetback’s Badasss Song had established. Black heroes, with an agenda all of their own, were coming up fast in the studio-lite ‘New Hollywood’ that Easy Rider had helped to spawn.

America, in terms of the white middle class majority, was rapidly waking up to the narcotic excesses of its citizens, cocaine and heroin outstripping the traditional recreational use of marijuana. Yet, for the working class black population, this was nothing new (Malcolm X, if not Martin Luther King, had long decried its use among his flock) but finally there was an opportunity to expose this to a national consciousness not as news but as entertainment…

To her former beau and cop Carter Brown (Elliott) or to political contender and current partner Howard Brunswick (Bradshaw) she’s known simply as ‘Coffy’. However the outwardly mild mannered nurse Nurse Coffin (Grier) engages in a macabre night shift which involves the targeting of local neighbourhood heroin dealers with her trusty sawn-off shotgun. Feeling alone in an environment in which black drug dealers sate the demand of users with the protection of white policemen with the blessing of whites further up the chain, Coffy seeks revenge for the plight of your teenage sister who is now squarely hooked on heroin.

Conferring with all round good egg Carter Brown, Coffy’s faith in the due process of policing is somewhat restored before Brown’s corrupt partner sets him up for a punishment beating for not straying from the straight and narrow. Having attempted to reclaim her life, Coffy now finds herself plunged even further into her revenge mission. Heading for heroin dealing hoodlum King George (Doqui), in posing as Jamaican callgirl Mistique (nicknamed ‘Miss Dick’ by envious and less generously endowed employees), Coffy aims to bring down the local syndicate from the top but hasn’t gambled on the ruthlessness of her opponents nor betrayal from an unexpected source.

If all the above sounds a little heavy duty for a 90 minutes blaxploitation revenge flick, fear not. Writer/director Jack Hill does make provision for an anti-drugs message, the potency of which is absent from other entries in the genre, particularly in one interestingly affecting scene which holds a tight close up only on Carter Brown’s face as he surveys the stricken victims in a heroin rehabilitation hospital ward. There’s also a horrifying lynching involving a certain character getting his comeuppance which would be grimly humorous if this sort of thing wasn’t still going on in America’s deep south.

That said, Hill never lets the politics overpower the action. Coffy was designed as a vehicle for the pneumatic but gifted Pam Grier and it shows. Despite an impressive performance as a fallibly brittle but driven heroine that rises above the periodically risible dialogue, awkward framing and haphazard editing, Grier is still called upon to disrobe at key points just in case the audience’s attention has wavered.

A prime example of these is an entirely unnecessary scene in which Coffy, as her undercover identity Mistique, gets into a catfight with her flat-backer colleagues that causes an assortment of blouses, gowns and dresses to be ripped open above the waist as a group of bemused but appreciative men look on in awe.

Of these men, Booker Bradshaw eels his way through an unimaginably slimy politician performance, Robert Doqui (yes, that is him as the desk sargeant in Robocop) struts his funky stuff in an ill-advised wardrobe and regular Hill figure Sid Haig chews up all the garish scenery in the shaven-headed man mountain muscle role that Vin Diesel would kill for.

Try as they valiantly might, none of the performers can quite overcome Hill’s choppy direction but Coffy is a fun movie, very much of its time with Roy Ayer’s caramel smooth funk soundtrack, and diverting nonetheless.

Made in 1974 the Coffy print, much like the costumes it depicts, has not aged well. It’s bright, the colours are warm and it’s a touch on the soft side which is perhaps to be expected. What is surprising is the level of grain present during the night scenes added to the scratch marks and white flecks that denote a not insubstantial amount of print damage.

A disappointment to those hoping for MGM to have undertaken a pristine restoration certainly but curiously enough, as with other aspects of the film and its presentation, this facet reinforces the ‘old skool’ nature of the experience, much like vinyl as compared with compact discs, by enhancing that imperfect retro feel.

Sonically, it’s another no-frills mono soundtrack from the ‘Soul Cinema’ range but what action can be found is adequately handled by the single channel. Shotgun bursts are as meaty as the limitations of the format will allow, Roy Ayers fat and bubbly funk soundtrack is pretty sharp from the bass to the hi-hat and the dialogue is refreshingly free from hiss or crackles as the as it is delivered high in the unfortunately narrow mix.

As is usual from MGM catalogue releases, a single theatrical trailer is provided. Everything you’d expect a blaxploitation promotional item to be, it’s brassy, loud and very funny.

The menus are neither animated nor scored but they do take design cues from the film itself, presenting the various options alongside publicity stills of Grier as Coffy against an excruciating multi-coloured backdrop.

In todays’ high-concept Hollywood, Coffy wouldn’t get anywhere near a producer’s greenlight. Thus, for all its flaws, it’s a capable if awkwardly entertaining alternative look at the pervasive nature of the drug business among ethnic minorities in order to justify the main character’s vigilante mission. Presented on a technically proficient, but definitely not above average, MGM disc at a reasonable price point, Pam Grier philes should snap this one up without delay but the more discerning viewer may be advised to decide on a rental first.