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Site created 12/15/97.


reviews added: 6/19/00



The Shaft Trilogy

reviews by Todd Doogan of The Digital Bits

Shaft

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Shaft
1971 (2000) - Turner/MGM (Warner)

Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/C/B

Specs and Features:

100 minutes, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, full frame (1.33:1), dual-sided, single-layered, Snapper case packaging, Soul in Cinema: Filming Shaft on Location, awards listing, cast and crew bios, theatrical trailers (Shaft, Shaft's Big Score! and Shaft in Africa), film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (20 chapters), languages: English and French (DD mono), subtitles: English and French, Closed Captioned



Shaft's Big Score

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs


Shaft's Big Score!
1972 (2000) - Turner/MGM (Warner)

Film Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/C/C

Specs and Features:

104 minutes, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, full frame (1.33:1), dual-sided, single-layered, Snapper case packaging, cast and crew bios, theatrical trailers (Shaft, Shaft's Big Score! and Shaft in Africa), film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (30 chapters), languages: English and French (DD mono), subtitles: English and French, Closed Captioned



Shaft in Africa

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs
Shaft in Africa
1972 (2000) - Turner/MGM (Warner)

Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/C-/C

Specs and Features:

112 minutes, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, full frame (1.33:1), dual-sided, single-layered, Snapper case packaging, cast and crew bios, theatrical trailers (Shaft, Shaft's Big Score! and Shaft in Africa), film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (30 chapters), languages: English and French (DD mono), subtitles: English and French, Closed Captioned


Who's the black private dick that's the sex machine to all the chicks? If your answer is "Shaft!," then you're damn right. But I ask then, who is the man who would risk his neck for his brother man? If you again answer, "Shaft!" can YOU dig it? Can I ask who's the cat that won't cop out when there's danger all about? Would that answer again be, "Shaft!"? If so, right on. You know, they say this cat Shaft is a bad muther... (Shut your mouth). I just talking' 'bout Shaft here (We can dig it). From everything that I've ever read, the only thing that's for sure, is that he's a complicated man but no one understands him but his woman.

Screenwriter and pulp novelist Ernest Tidyman never really meant to do it, but when he had the idea to create this kick-ass character, he never knew he'd create an icon for the 1970s. Between 1970 and 1975, Ernest wrote seven books about a tough-talking, take-no-bullshit private detective named John Shaft. When MGM made the first film in 1971, critics were initially divided about the film's appeal and ultimate worth. Most called it insulting to the black race, highlighting stereotypes that African-Americans have been fighting so hard to crush. Others saw it simply as a good film, that would be the perfect way to kill an hour and a half of your life. Either way, audiences flocked to see it. The NAACP seemed to agree with the latter group, and awarded Tidyman the prestigious NAACP Image Award. No small feat when you consider the list of white recipients was (and still is) quite small. Yes, the man who defined an era and help strengthen the action genre we lovingly call blaxploitation... was a white Academy Award winner (for screenwriting The French Connection). Go figure.

For MGM to make this film was a pretty gutsy move. All things considered, black audiences were virtually ignored by mainstream Hollywood up until this point. A few months prior to this, Melvin Van Pebbles rocked the independent world with his Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song. And even prior to that, Ossie Davis released his Cotton Goes to Harlem through United Artists. But the major studios remained still. Would a high profile film piss people off or suck them in? Would it loose money? Would a movie like this start a race war? MGM was up to the task of finding out, and they put up one and a half million dollars and handed veteran still photographer and musician Gordon Parks the reins. When it was all over, the initial domestic gross would be over 7 million dollars and be the 12th highest grossing film of the year. And that's not considering the international grosses, merchandising and album sales. Yes, the private dick Tidyman named after a fire escape he spied from out his publisher's window during his first pitch was now an American pop culture icon. The film was also directly responsible for a wave of other such classics, like Cleopatra Jones, Superfly and Dolomite. Cinema's horizon would never be the same again.

There are three Shaft films from the 1970's. A potential forth (Shaft Among the Jews, based on Tidyman's second book which concerns an Israeli diamond scientist being hunted down for his new weapons grade diamond) was passed on by the studio brass at MGM at the last minute. Shaft was so huge that there was even a short-lived TV series based upon it, which featured a very sanitized Shaft (with Richard Roundtree returning in the role) busting up New York criminals for something like 14 episodes - and I don't even think it completed its run long enough to show all 14.

Blaxploitation wasn't the longest going genre in film. It puttered out in the latter portion of the 1970s and stays alive only in our hearts. Some hold hope for it's return, and point to the new Shaft film as a potential savior. But the sad fact is Shaft 2000 is more an HK shoot 'em up than your more traditional blaxploitation flick. And you know what? That's a good thing. There's nothing wrong with that, 'cause we'll always have the original stuff to look back on and let out a satisfying, "Yeah, shorty, yeah."

For the record, the first two films had full involvement from Tidyman and director Gordon Parks (who also did the music for Shaft's Big Score!). The last film, Shaft in Africa, is considered by many purists on the genre to be bastard stepchild (and was considered such by Tidyman, for it's the only one without a novelization). The Digital Bits is once again proud to welcome some more blaxploitation films onto DVD where they belong. So let's take a look at the baddest muther to ever strap on a gun and walk down Bleeker Street. I'm talkin' about...

Shaft

Lt. Vic Androzzi: "Well John, what'd you get?"

Shaft: "I got laid."

Where to begin? Well, let's just talk about Shaft (Roundtree). Can you dig it? You're damn right, baby. In this first film, Shaft is visited by Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn), a drug dealing pimp who just happens to be the biggest gangster in Harlem. As he explains, when he tried to extend his territory, he crossed the Italian mob. So they kidnapped his daughter to show him who really holds the ace. Bumpy needs Shaft to find his daughter and bring her home. Now, Shaft ain't in the market to help no hustler. He shows this by throwing one of Bumpy's men out a window and flat into Times Square. But when an innocent girl's life is at stake, he knows who he's really helping. Shaft first investigates Ben (Christopher St. John), a militant ex-friend who might have something big enough against Bumpy (polluting his own people) and might want to help the Mafia out in the vengeance scheme. But he doesn't, and when all of Ben's brothers are killed by a gangster shadowing Shaft, Shaft takes it personal and goes right at the throat of the gangsters himself, only to get shot in the chest. Bullets ain't nothing but metal, so a few hours later, Shaft's strapped with dynamite and a shotgun and swinging through the window, kicking ass and taking names. He gets the girl, gets the money and most of all, sticks it right in the face of the Man, here represented by Lt. Vic Androzzi (Charles Cioffi), the police lieutenant who turns to Shaft when cases turn ugly and unsolvable by traditional justice.

I'm not ruining anything by giving all those facts - Shaft isn't about the story, it's about the man in the leather jacket and turtleneck. Quite frankly, Shaft, as a film, sucks harder than a Washington intern on a warm spring day. The continuity is off, the acting is stiff and the camera set-ups reek. Technically, this film fails at every turn. BUT... it has something a lot of films don't have, which is charisma. This film is so watchable that you start not caring just how bad it is. The music for example, all by itself, is a work of genius (literally - by Isaac Hayes). But in this film, it just doesn't fit. Well, okay... aside from the theme. But even that doesn't work in the film correctly (Hayes rapping under dialogue and the chorus being louder than the music). Another bad thing is the obvious looping done for Roundtree. About every other line from him sounds like it was redone back in the mixing room. Whether it was flubbed lines, a bad recording or too much background noise, we don't know. What we do know, is that the levels are way off. Still, the film is so lovable. I can't get enough of Shaft. Maybe it's because I loved it so much as a teen, or maybe it's because I love blaxploitation films in general. Who knows why - I do love me some Shaft.

On DVD, Shaft is nothing short of super fly. I know there are some rumblings out there on the quality of this disc being poor, but get real. This is a flick shot in 1971 and it shows it's age - it always has. It also features a great many technical goofs that are nothing but magnified on this disc. But this is the best this film has ever looked on any home video medium. Could it look better? I would imagine it could, but Warner would have to go back to the original negatives and restore it (and I mean really restore it - not just clean it up and put to a digital medium). They didn't go all out for this release and I seriously doubt they have it on their list for a full-blown restoration any time soon. That's okay - for what we have, I can live with it. The picture is clear in a nice anamorphic widescreen, with no artifacting to be found. There's loads of grain, some scratches and bits of dust, but nothing too distracting. The blacks aren't very deep, and I mean that only in the print sense. That's all just age issues though and no fault to Warner's mastering. It's a good-looking flick. The Dolby Digital sound is a straight mono mix with no distortion. The original sound problems might have been fixed with a new mix, and that's a sticking point with me. There could have been some good work put into this film. Still, I'm happy overall.

The extras are minor and only worth a small mention. There's a short period documentary showcasing the music and some behind-the-scenes stuff on the filming. The latter is cool and is well worth checking out. There's also a cast and crew list (with a bio and filmography of Richard Roundtree), an awards listing, all three theatrical trailers and the entire Theme From Shaft playing over the main menu. For fans of the film, it's a nice package. If I fantasize about what a company like Sharpline Arts would do for a special edition of this film, I get a little pissed. But I'm probably in the minority when it come to wanting a full blown edition of Shaft. Then again, if I'm not... let Warner know.

Shaft's Big Score!

Capt. Bollin: "Maybe you two had a little conversation before this happened? What did he tell you Shaft?"

Shaft: "Stay away from black honkies with big flat feet."

Shaft was bound to come back, and come he did - knocking a big-ass hole through the wall. This time, Shaft is sucked into a murder mystery and extortion plan when the brother of the girl he's knockin' boots wit' turns up dead, and all fingers point to his gambling-indebted partner Kelly as the guy who blew him out. But Kelly's not alone. He's working with a big time gangster. Shaft don't care though, he'll kick everybody's ass to get back in with that sweet doll. Right after he interrogates Kelly's girlfriend... if you catch my drift.

Shaft's Big Score! is a nice follow up to the original. Shaft's still a bad ass, although as shown in this film, he can't fight or shoot. Gordon Parks returns to the director's chair and he does a better job here, with only a few gaffes this time (most notably 33 minutes in, when we first see Kelly's girl singing a song and the same 1-second shot is repeated 8 times - check it out). The music is more gritty and jazzy this time, also thanks to Mr. Parks. The ending is a bit on the "huh?" side, with a surprisingly boring 20-minute helicopter chase through an industrial park. But we're talking 'bout Shaft here. The story holds up well and that's all that matters.

The DVD is on about the same field as the first one. The picture quality is good, with a beautiful anamorphic transfer in full effect, and the soundtrack is a straight mono with no pops or hiss. There are no flaws on either side. The extras are small, with the same three trailers and a cast and crew index (with Parks explored this time out). The main menu screen has the first half of Blow Your Mind by D.C. Smith playing, but it cuts before the "Shaft rap" - remember this because it's coming back. Shaft's Big Score! isn't going to win any awards on DVD, but it's a good blow for blaxploitation on DVD.

Shaft in Africa

Wassa: "Where did you study stick fighting?"

Shaft: "Conducting the New York Philharmonic."

As good as this film is (and it really is good), I have to wonder why it was made. Shaft's element is the street and taking him out of it, especially in only the third film, is a bit perplexing. I mean, why? What's the point? Here, Shaft is abducted by an African Emir and "tested" for stamina and intellect. He of course passes the test, 'cause he's a bad-ass. The price of passing the test is high though. For 25 thousand dollars, Shaft gets to infiltrate a slave ring and work his way to the top to take it down from the inside out. Along they way, he busts some heads open with a stick, gets pissed when he looses his new dog and has sex with a nymphomaniac white chick who's got a bad case of jungle fever. As films go, Shaft in Africa is a good old-fashioned, entertaining-as-hell film, but it isn't a good Shaft film. There were a few books out by this time with some great street stories that they could have done - so why this? The only reason is obvious: to send the brother man to the mother land. Pshaw on that. I would much rather have seen Shaft Among the Jews (although that's a horrible title and the film was probably passed on for title alone). Stirling Silliphant (famed television and film writer, award winner for In the Heat of the Night) wrote and co-produced this, and it has a higher production value than the first two. I'm just not all that pleased as a Shaft fan. But what are you going to do? I was 2 when this flick came out.

The Shaft in Africa DVD is of a little less quality than the first two. That's not in the picture at all - the picture quality is top notch. There is however a slight hiss going on in the mono channel. It's faint but there. The extras are the three trailers, cast and crew bios (focusing again on Roundtree) and the incomplete second half of Blowing Your Mind, picking up where the last disc left out. That's kind of silly really, especially when you consider that Are You Man Enough? by The Four Tops was a way better theme and is pretty damn close to the original in spirit (although it's considerably less funky). This film and disc is lesser entry all the way around.

Shaft can kick my ass any day. I love the man, the films and, God help me, I love the genre as a whole. Shaft is only a drop in the bucket and it's not even the best one - there's a whole library out there, with a great many films owned and controlled by MGM/UA. They have Foxy Brown, Truck Turner and Black Caesar. Man... could you imagine the fun Saturdays we could all have with those movies out on DVD? Damn, MGM - get off your jive ass and give us some more blaxploitation! We need it. I need it. Hell, you need it!

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com


Shaft


Shaft's Big Score


Shaft in Africa


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