Warner Archive does right by ‘the black private dick whose a sex machine to all the chicks' with this three-disc collection bringing together all three of the original seventies Shaft films in high definition.
Directed by Gordon Parks and written by Earnest Tidymany (and based on his own book of the same name) and released in 1971, Shaft was a trendsetter, one of the first mainstream films to posit a black man as a tough talking, no-nonsense private investigator, the kind that didn't take any crap from anybody, regardless of skin color. We see this right away as John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) walks through thick Manhattan traffic, mouthing off to those who get in his way with a loud and clear ‘Up yours, baby!' As he heads to his office, he gets a tip: two bad dudes are looking for him. When they inevitably attack him, he's ready and his quick thinking and hard-hitting land him a meeting with Vic Androzzi (Charles Cioffi) of the NYPD. Vic grills Shaft for information he doesn't have.
It turns out that the two men who tried to take him down where in the employ of one Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn), a Harlem mobster who wants Shaft for a job. Not prepared to take any lip, in an interesting powerplay move Shaft arranges for Bumpy to come to his office, and he does, with right hand man Willy (Drew Bundini Brown) in tow. It turns out that Bumpy's daughter, Marcy (Sherri Brewer), has been kidnapped. He doesn't who did it and he doesn't know why, he just wants his girl back and he knows Shaft is the man for the job. Shaft is no fool, he knows there more to this than Bumpy is letting on, but he takes the job anyway. Soon enough, he's teamed up with an old friend, Ben Buford (Christopher St. John), who is now involved with a group of black militants to try and crack the case. After they're attacked, Shaft starts to realize he and Ben are in the middle of a mob war.
"The mob wanted Harlem back, they got Shaft… up to here."
Rarely in the ‘cinema of cool' has there been an entry as authentic, as effortless and as successful as Shaft. Much of the credit for this goes to Roundtree. He's handsome, slick, tough and almost always in control. He takes on cops, thugs, mobsters and anyone who gets in his way. He's also got a way with the ladies that would seem unparalleled, regardless of their skin color (he beds both black and white women in the film). The guy's got swagger to spare, handling himself just as well when busting heads as when dealing with more romantic distractions. The supporting cast is solid too, with Charles Cioffi doing a great job as Shaft's kinda-sorta cop buddy and Christopher St. John excelling as Shaft's comrade in arms. Dew Bundini Brown and especially Moses Gunn are also great here, and look for Antonio Fargas in a small part, but it's Roundtree who owns the film.
The authentically gritty New York City locations give the film a vibrant energy, and the Oscar-winning from Isaac Hayes is every bit as good as you'd hope it could be, laying down exactly the right sort of soulful groove that the movie needed.
There hadn't been a movie like this before, the film broke new ground and audiences responded, which quickly led to a sequel being made...
Shaft's Big Score:
Released only a year later in 1972 and once again directed by Parks and written by Tidyman, Shaft's Big Score begins when Shaft gets a phone call at 2am, while he's in bed with the most recent notch on his bedpost. The man on the other end of the phone is Cal (Robert Kya-Hill), the brother of Arna (Rosalind Miles), who just so happens to be the woman in bed with him at this very moment. He needs Shaft to come to his office immediately, it's a matter of grave importance. Shaft hops out of bed and gets in his car just as the building blows up behind him.
From here, Cal winds up dead and the story turns into a twisting, turning tale of mobsters wanting control of a numbers racket and the not so insignificant matter of a sizeable chunk of missing cash. There's a mobster who wants to use the numbers racket to help the community and a rival who wants it all for himself and then there's a third looking to come in and take over. Shaft, of course, winds up in the middle of all of this. The bad numbers guy is Johnny Kelly (Wally Taylor). He tries to make a move for the money while Shaft makes a move on his woman, Rita (Kathy Imrie). It all gets sorted out in the end.
You liked it before, so he's back with more! SHAFT! BACK IN ACTION!
While it's great to see Roundtree, Gunn and Brown reprise their roles and it's interesting to see Parks and Tidyman working with a larger budget this time around, the movie lacks the momentum that makes the first picture so compelling. It isn't a bad film, mind you, but the dialogue feels a bit more forced and while Roundtree is clearly game for everything that the script throws at him, things are just that bit more contrived. The flow isn't as strong, the pacing isn't as tight and the movie isn't as effective. Parks gets points for taking certain scenes in a strangely artistic direction with the sex scenes and a weird fight where Shaft gets beaten up, but taking Isaac Hayes out of the soundtrack arena (he contributes only one song, Type Thing, and it's fairly generic) to be replaced by Parks himself hurts the movie as well. It's also obvious that the racial angle of the first film was toned down a lot, likely in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience.
That said, there's some solid action filmmaking on display here, especially once we get closer to the finish line. Tighter editing bringing the film from the two-hour mark to the ninety-minute mark might have helped, but when it all hits the fan and Shaft and Rita wind up in a killer chase sequence, the movie catches fire nicely. Not an amazing sequel, but worth a watch for fans of the original, it's a fine slice of early seventies escapism even if it doesn't break any new ground.
Shaft In Africa:
In this third film, released in 1973, Parks, Tidyman and Hayes were nowhere to be seen. The direction was handled by John Guillermin and the script by Sterling Silliphant, who had penned some decent crime films earlier like In The Heat Of The Night and Marlowe.
As open with a black man executed by some French hitmen. Cut to John Shaft taking a jog through Central Park as some thieves make away with his hubcaps. At any rate, Shaft is hired by Emir Ramila (Cy Grant) whose son was killed in that opening scene. It turns out he was investigating some modern day slave traders and he got too close. Emir wants Shaft to make the trip overseas and settle things properly. He's also willing to let his beautiful daughter Aleme (Vonetta McGee) get him culturally acquainted with all that he'll need to know to make the transition from New Yorker to African.
Shaft takes the case and before you know it, he's in Africa with little more than the basic supplies he needs to survive and a bodyguard he was better off without. It isn't long before he's moving in on the slave traders and being trailed by a group of killers out to stop him before he can upset the operation.
The brother man in the Motherland… SHAFT is stickin' it ….all the way.
The film uses The Four Tops' ‘Are You Man Enough' over the opening credits and, if we can't have Hayes, this is a very fine musical substitute. While on the surface this movie might seem like little more than a gimmick (taking Shaft out of Manhattan and dropping him in Africa), there's actually a really good story being told here. If Shaft's Big Score gave audiences more of the same, Shaft In Africa gets more creative not just in its geography, but in the scope of its story. Shaft is now to stop international criminals rather than deal with a local problem, and that is, as you might guess, trickier in a lot of ways. The story is well-paced and Guillermin's direction tight. This one also had a decent budget behind it and so it looks quite good, it's a polished film.
Roundtree is his typically charismatic self here and he's got good chemistry with McGee. Moses Gunn is missed this time around but the completely new supporting cast do decent work. There are times where the film stretches things a bit, Shaft seems almost too invincible at times, but this is a better, stronger and more interesting film than the second picture.
Each film is presented on its own disc, the first on a 25GB disc and the two sequels on 50GB discs. Shaft is presented in 1.78.1 while Shaft's Big Score and Shaft In Africa are wider at 2.40.1 widescreen. Each transfer is presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition, and generally speaking they look really, really nice. These might not have been made with massive budgets but they're nicely shot and take full advantage of the format. Detail easily surpasses what the DVD editions were able to provide when they came out years ago, there's much stronger depth to the picture here and far better texture as well. Colors look excellent and black levels are nice and deep. Expect some natural looking film grain throughout each of the three movies but you'll be hard pressed to find any actual print damage here at all. The transfers are also very film-like, showing not noticeable issues with noise reduction or edge enhancement and thankfully free of compression artifacts.
The first film gets a DTS-HD 1.0 track, the other films get DTS-HD 2.0 tracks, all three are in the films' native English and in 24-bit. Sound is a bit limited on the first film and while it doesn't sound thin or flat, it doesn't punch the way you might want it to. Still, there is again better resonance and a stronger overall acoustic presentation than we've had before. The two sequels sound a bit better, with a bit more bounce and a slightly stronger presentation. These are accurate representations of the recording and presented without any issues, no hiss or distortion to note at all, the levels are properly balanced. These tracks aren't fancy but they're fine overall.
The Blu-ray for the first film carries over the extras from the DVD release, starting with Soul In Cinema: Filming Shaft On Location, which is a ten-minute look behind the scenes of the making of the film featuring Parks, Roundtree, Hayes and editor Hugh Robertson collaborating on putting the picture together. It's quite interesting.
The disc also includes Shaft: The Killing, a seventy-three-minute TV movie from 1973. In this one, John Shaft has to rescue a former girlfriend, Diana Richie (Ja'net DuBois) from an evil pimp. The pimp in question is found dead, and of course, Shaft is fingered as the killer and nabbed by the fuzz. Diana can prove his innocence, but then she goes missing. This is given a decent enough fullframe standard definition presentation, it doesn't look amazing but it looks okay and it's more than watchable. This is very much a sanitized version of the character, though it's always fun to see Roundtree in the role that made him famous. The movie also stars Michael Pataki and Ja'net DuBois before she'd go on to appear in The Jeffersons.
Additionally, the disc for the first film includes trailers for all three films in the series, menus and chapter selection.
As to the sequels, extras are slim, limited to a trailer for each film on its respective disc, menus and chapter selection.
It would have been nice to get some new extra features, but otherwise Warner Archive's Blu-ray release of The Shaft Trilogy is very strong. The audio and video presentations leave the old DVDs in the dust and the movies themselves, especially the first picture, hold up well and remain quite influential even today. Recommended.