Coffy (Pam Grier) is a hardworking nurse who takes the law into her own hands when she learns that her sister has OD'd on heroin. Picking up a shotgun, she sets out to kill those who put her sis in hospital, first the smalltime dealers, then the corrupt officials responsible for bringing drugs into the country.
Coffy was the film that gave Pam Grier her first lead role, and it remains one of the seventies' most endearing B-movies. It was very much part of the Blaxploitation craze ignited by the success of Shaft two years earlier, although writer/director Jack Hill had been at the exploitation game for years. Like Larry Cohen, whose Black Caesar is perhaps the genre's very best, Hill saw that black audiences were thirsty for some fast-moving violent thrills, and with Pam Grier he found his perfect star.
This is a simple story of revenge, but unlike Foxy Brown, Hill and Grier's 1974 follow-up, there's an intriguing moral ambiguity. Coffy admits that the bloody vengeance she unleashes upon the drug-pushing scum seems like a dream afterwards, and there is certainly a marked contrast between the meek, dowdy nurse she is by day and the voluptuous vigilante she becomes at night. Coffy's ex, caring cop Carter (William Elliott), still loves her, but she's more interested in upcoming politician Howard (Booker Bradshaw) who promises to help the black community fight the drug menace. Unfortunately, Howard is also working for 'the man' and plans to import a huge shipment of smack with his shady colleagues. He claims, while staring down the barrel of Coffy's shotgun, that he'll put the money he's making back into the community, and this is a compelling argument that nearly saves his ass.
Hill populates his film with the usual array of dubious characters – big-hatted pimp King George, seedy racist trafficker Arturo, goateed thug Omar (played by Hill regular Sid Haig) – plus a series of increasingly bizarre action sequences. There's a hilarious cat-fight between our top-heavy heroine (disguised as a Jamaican hooker to infiltrate King George's operation) and the rest of George's jealous harem, and a choice moment when she smashes a car directly through the walls of the villains' lair.
As in Foxy Brown, Grier takes quite a bit of abuse herself, but it's a nice touch that the nastiest violence is inflicted on her foes by each other, as Coffy sows mistrust in their ranks. Try not to wince as King George is tied to the back of a car and taken for a ride! In general, the film has aged pretty well – the dark, violent tone overcomes the more obvious kitschy elements, and Grier adds a touch of sophistication to proceedings. With funky-ass music from Roy Ayers.