Pam Grier is maybe the most famous actress whose body of work consists entirely of Grindhouse, B-movie junk. It probably helps that she was gorgeous, with an amazing figure and a trademark afro (that she did not in fact have most of the time) that became shorthand for a certain part of American culture in the 70's. But beyond being ridiculously good-looking, she may also be the first female action hero. And if that's true, then Coffy is her first leading action role. While she had already appeared in several women in prison type stories like the Big Doll House and Women in Cages, Coffy is Grier's debut as a solo lead, and also transitions her out of the exploitive women in prison genre and into the equally exploitive blaxploitation genre!
The film begins in a bedroom, where a drug dealer/pimp/general no-goodnik brings a strung out woman to a second man. Unfortunately for both of them, the strung out woman is actually Coffy, and she uses a sawed off shotgun to murder both of the criminals. We learn that Coffy is killing these men as revenge for her child sister's recent overdose; from the beginning, Coffy takes a decided "drugs are bad" approach that's somewhat at odds with the earliest efforts of the genre.
By day, Coffy is a successful nurse, and is involved in a relationship with Howard Brunswick (Booker Bradshaw), a good-looking, successful, ambitious black man who announces plans to run for congress. She also learns that one of the police investigating her murder is Carter (William Elliott), an old boyfriend who still carries a torch for her.
Coffy is an amazing film. The plot is pretty standard revenge fare, but the execution is extremely effective. While the film doesn't go out of its way to hide Grier's amazing looks, Coffy mesmerizes the audience the same way she does the hapless cop or goofy King George. It's a combination of looks with resourcefulness and activity that makes her character so attractive; despite having no real training in any skill that would traditionally aid in vigilantism, she single-handedly works her way through her city's criminal underbelly in a story that is at least halfway believable. A lot of bad movies have male characters tripping over themselves to please a bland waif, or have the movie sit around telling us how good-looking or irresistable its female lead is, but Coffy actually shows its lead in action.
Coffy is also a departure from the standard in that it goes out of its way to show how women are involved at all levels of criminal enterprise. Action movies, and crime movies in particular have a tendency of making crime a boys club, but Coffy not only features a female action hero, we see women in non-victim roles. King George's top prostitute clearly has a position of authority, at least among the other girls. Additionally, early in the film Coffy confronts an addict prostitute and shakes her down for information, just before the girl's pimp, a large, butch lesbian appears. We still get the standard kid-sister on drugs, but Coffy is still unsure of the rightness of her vigilantism until her cop friend becomes a victim. So not only do we get women action heroes and women pimps, we get a male victim that drives the protagonist.
The film's stance on drugs and race is a lot more standard: rich whitey is responsible for everything, and is out there trying to convince black guys to sell drugs to school children. These evil rich white dudes get rich through human suffering and Coffy is totally justified in crashing a car into their house or shooting them in the groin.
It's not a deep film or always a well-made film, but Coffy stands out within its genre as a surprisingly watchable, never dull revenge movie featuring an incredibly hot woman. Plus it has pimps that wear feather hats and are introduced by their own theme song. An incredibly entertaining piece of film history right there, people!