Pam Grier’s status as the queen of blaxploitation movies was secured by her appearance in Coffy—even though she doesn’t give a particularly good performance, she creates an indelible image. Tall, gorgeous, outrageously built, and believably ferocious, she’s a cartoonish vision of empowered womanhood, a superheroine sister with a shotgun mowin’ down every rotten mother*#@%er who does her wrong.
Just as Grier’s performance is a triumph of attitude over skill, Coffy is more about vibe than cinematic virtues. Writer-director Jack Hill’s narrative is as simplistic as a pulpy comic-book story, portraying Grier as an indomitable avenger cutting a swath through the criminal underworld in order to exact revenge against the system that caused her younger sister to become a brain-damaged addict. Feeling like she’s unable to affect real social change in her day job as a nurse, Coffy (Grier) moonlights as an adventurer, using her wiles to penetrate criminal organizations.
Coffy soon sets her sights on King George (Robert DoQui), a flamboyant pimp who also deals the nastiest junk in town. So, naturally, Coffy goes undercover as one of King George’s working girls, allowing Hill to put Grier into a series of barely-there outfits, and giving the director an excuse for epic catfights involving screeching hookers who are threatened by the buxom new arrival. Meanwhile, top-level criminal operator Arturo Vitroni (Allan Arbus) takes an interest in Coffy, at least until his underlings realize she might not be what she seems.
And so it goes through a series of standard detective-story beats: Coffy digs for evidence, schemes her way out of trouble when she’s trapped, and ultimately confronts the baddest bad guy in the climax. It all goes down smoothly, after a fashion, since Hill’s filmmaking is crudely entertaining and since the director doesn’t skimp on exploitation elements. Coffy overflows with boobs, gore, vulgarity, wah-wah funk music, and horrific ’70s fashions. (DoQui’s pimp outfits are particularly heinous.)
The movie has lots of lunkheaded exuberance, especially when Sid Haig shows up as Vitroni’s most sadistic lieutenant. Bearded, chrome-domed, and nearly always wearing a sick smile, Haig is Grier’s opposite number, an image of animalistic fury driven by base impulses instead of righteous ones. He’s also weirdly funny, and undoubtedly a big part of why Coffy has enjoyed decades of devotion from its cult of fervent fans.
Brisk and brutal, Coffy is only incidentally a feminist statement, since it’s really just unapologetic trash—the picture is so shameless in its pursuit of cheap thrills that it has a kind of gutter-level integrity. That it also happens to feature a powerful female protagonist who retains her femininity and sensitivity amid horrific circumstances is an added bonus.