'If Shaft Cant' Do It And The Hammer Won't, Then Super Spook Will!' - so says the tagline of the first ever blaxploitation parody made in 1972, long before Black Dynamite or I'm Gonna Get You Sucka were even gleams in their respective creators minds. Directed by Anthony Major and shot by a crew using equipment that they managed to borrow for a week, this mostly improvised picture was released to theaters running just under ninety minutes but arrives here in a lengthier director's cut for the first time.
When our story begins, a woman (Virginia Fields) working for a mob protection racket makes her rounds through Harlem and collects her money only to be robbed by a hood named Hi-Ho (Bill Jay) in Central Park later that same day. She tries to scare him off by pretending to know karate but he makes it away with her loot, much to the dismay of her daughter (Marcella Lowery). She's upset about what happened to her mom and so she hires a private detective named Super Spook (Leonard Jackson) to track down the thug and right this wrong.
Before you know it, our short and squatty private eye has hit the streets, avoiding guys like Sergeant Sandwich (Tony King) and trying to get information from a fake fire and brimstone preacher and some dice players in hopes of tracking down Hi-Ho, who owes his barber a few bucks and needs the money he took to impress his picky lady friend.
Super Spook's adlibbed style makes a few scenes that play out a bit of a cinematic endurance test. They just go on too long to the point where what could have been a funny thirty second gag turns into a plodding five minute bore - and happens a few times throughout the film, meaning that this director's cut of the film is quite simply too long and too drawn out to always work. The film isn't a complete write off though, not by a long shot. There's a manic energy to much of the picture that lets us overlook a few failed attempts at humor (we're introduced to our hero on screen while he's wiping his ass after using the toilet) and those pesky pacing issues to appreciate the fact that the movie does a great job of capturing some fascinating inner city locations and style. As far as the comedy goes, Jackson's interactions with the female characters, who he's always flirting with and dropping hints with, can be pretty funny as his delivery is just so unlikely and brazen that you can't help but laugh at it. So too are his conversations with some of the street denizens who he tries to get information from. The fight scenes are also hilariously bad, almost on the same level as the king of all unintentionally hilarious blaxploitation movies, The Guy From Harlem.
A great score and a pretty killer opening theme song help move things along and it's cool to see various people like King and Jackson, better known for bigger and better movies than this one, pop up in the film. What we wind up with is a pretty erratic picture that throws in everything from typical blaxploitation tough talking dialogue to super fast bicycle chases to bad attempts at romance and more to wind up an screwy, quirky hodgepodge of comedy, action and just plain weird. Fascinating more for how it was made and who made it and why than for what it is, Super Spook isn't a great movie, though it is an interesting one - which is where the extra features come into play on this release.
NOTE: THIS REVIEW IS BASED ON A TEST DISC THAT MAY OR MAY NOT REPRESENT FINISHED RETAIL PRODUCT:
Super Spook was shot on 16mm short ends to save money using borrowed equipment over the span of only a few days, and it was then blown up to 35mm for theatrical presentation. This transfer was taken from the 35mm dupe negative, mastered in HD, and is presented here on DVD in 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen. Given the origins of the film, it looks pretty darn good here. Yes, it's grainy and it has some minor print damage and yes there are spots where the colors look a bit flat but detail isn't bad at all and overall the image is surprisingly clean and completely watchable.
The only audio option for the feature is an English language Dolby Digital Mono track that is about on par with the transfer in terms of quality. A few scenes sound a little more muffled than others but overall the audio is, for the most part, pretty easy to follow and properly balanced. There's a bit of hiss in a few spots, but most will find this completely forgiveable.
This is one of those movies where the extra features really do a great job of complimenting the movie itself, and Scorpion Releasing has put way more effort into this release than anyone probably ever expected for a movie this obscure. Supplements start off with a commentary track featuring director Anthony Major, producer Ed Dessisso, editor Sandy Tung, and actors Tony King, Randy Harris and Billy Jay. Despite a few gaps of silence here and there, this is a pretty interesting track, particularly when King discusses all of the many hats he wore on this production and the guys talk about what was improvised, shooting on a shoestring budget, and other interesting aspects of the production.
More interesting than the commentary is the fifty-three minute featurette, The Making Of Super Spook which features interviews with all of the participants from the commentary track. Though it covers some of the same ground as the commentary, they go into a good bit of detail as to the various strings that were pulled to get this movie made and their enthusiasm is pretty infectious. It's also interesting to see the actors out of character here - some are very different than their onscreen counterparts, some not so much.
Rounding out the extras is a ten minute bit called Tony King In Italy in which the actor talks about being cast in Antonio Margheriti's Cannibal Apocalypse and how that lead to other work for him in Europe, a pretty awesome seven minute short film called Off-Duty (about a black man's difficulties hailing a cab in seventies New York City), a trailer for the feature, a still gallery of production shots, menus and chapter stops.
Super Spook isn't always successful and it's often a bit too drawn out and prolonged for its own good but it is interesting and frequently very funny. On top of that, it's a great time capsule of the Harlem of the 1970s and an interesting example of what can be done with a dedicated crew and cast to overcome financial obstacles and actually get a movie made. Scorpion's DVD is packed with extras that really do a great job of telling the whole story of this odd little film, and the presentation looks fine considering the age and obscurity of the picture. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.