Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Shaft (1971) & Shaft’s Big Score (1972) & Shaft In Africa (1973)

          Richard Roundtree’s lead performance is a triumph of super-cool swagger, director Gordon Parks shoots the streets of New York City with a keen eye for grungy detail, and Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning music is nuclear-powered funk/soul, but Shaft thrives on style over substance, because despite these considerable surface pleasures, the quasi-legendary flick is a dramatic washout. Still, it was zesty enough to trigger a slew of sequels and to inspire the blaxploitation craze, so it must be ranked as of the most significant B-movies of the ’70s even though it’s not exceptional cinema. The storyline is standard stuff about tough-talking private dick John Shaft (Roundtree) getting hired to rescue a gangster’s kidnapped daughter, so what makes the picture significant is the characterization of a cocksure black superhero operating outside the law and doing whatever he damn well pleases; in the defining moment, Shaft exits a conference with a pushy white cop by announcing that he’s off “to get laid.”
          Roundtree cuts a great figure with his immaculate facial hair, black turtleneck, and black leather suit, so when he shoots his way through an action scene—or even just strolls through the city to the accompaniment of Hayes’ pulsating music—he’s such an appealing vision of African-American empowerment that he gives the movie more vitality than it probably deserves. Excepting the tasty ’70s lingo and atmospheric Harlem settings, Ernest Tidyman’s script is quite old-fashioned, the sort of convoluted crime story Hollywood has cranked out since time immemorial, so the granddaddy of blaxploitation films doesn’t really have all that much kitschy flava: It’s merely a conventional thriller that happens to feature an memorable lead character and a predominantly black cast.
          The ordinariness is even more evident in the first sequel, Shaft’s Big Score, which finds our hero stuck in the middle of a war for control over a lucrative numbers racket. Shaft gets laid, kills a few people, and lays on the ’tude, but the narrative is so utilitarian that it’s more like a run-of-the-mill TV episode than a theatrical sequel. About the only novelty is that director Parks took over as composer for Shaft’s Big Score, copying Hayes’ style down to the theme song “Blowin’ Your Mind,” which is a shameless rip of the original film’s unforgettable “Theme from Shaft.” Shaft’s Big Score is solid meat-and-potatoes ’70s action, but nothing more.
          The franchise’s last ’70s theatrical entry, before Roundtree took the Shaft character to the small screen for a brief run of telefilms, is the energetic Shaft in Africa. Boasting the most interesting (and logic-defying) storyline of the series, Shaft in Africa gets the main character out of his Harlem comfort zone for a 007-style international adventure in which he busts up a modern-day slavery ring—and with all due respect to the venerable Parks, Shaft in Africa helmer John Guillermin has a more polished approach to action and storytelling, using slick widescreen photography to give the modestly budgeted threequel more lush imagery than its predecessors. Shaft in Africa is also considerably more violent than the other two pictures, including some brutal hand-to-hand combat, so it’s the most intense entry, and Frank Finlay (The Three Musketeers) is an effectively perverse villain.
          Roundtree’s charismatic portrayal is consistently watchable throughout all three movies, so checking out at least one of the Shaft pictures is a necessity for any ’70s completist, but many of the outrageous blaxploitation flicks that followed in Shaft’s wake improved on the prototype.

Shaft: FUNKY
Shaft’s Big Score: FUNKY
Shaft in Africa: FUNKY

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