Shaft's Big Score! (1972)

D: Gordon Parks
S: Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn

Leisurely-paced sequel to the 1971 Shaft produced with a considerably bigger budget and not a small measure of smugness by MGM following the success of its predecessor. Reteaming the director, writer, and star of the first film, this outing has some of the same qualities which made the first one work, but director Gordon Parks in particular has indulged himself to much too great a degree to retain the edge which made its predecessor worthwhile. Equipped with a widescreen anamorphic Panavision camera, Parks spends so much time lingering over painterly compositions of the landscape that the action itself suffers. Characters seem to spend ages having uninteresting conversations as the camera glides around them soaking in the surroundings with obvious relish. It only works in fits and starts, and never comes together on the whole. The story doesn't hold the viewer's attention and though professionally put together, it lacks a real sense of character. It will fill an hour and forty minutes without making too many demands on the viewer, but one senses that perhaps it should have done more.

The story has private detective John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) facing off against both black and white antagonists once again, and forming an uneasy alliance with mobster Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn), also featured in the previous film. This time it is a quest to uncover the whereabouts of $250, 000 owed to white gangster Joseph Mascolo by minor racketeer Wally Taylor, whose late business partner was the brother of Shaft's current squeeze. Again there is not much detecting as such as Shaft beats and blasts his way through the ranks of miscellaneous villainy before facing off with the ringleader, all of it watched from the wings by the NYPD (this time represented by Julius W. Harris, a black captain referred to by Shaft early on as a 'black honkey': Shaft's contempt for 'the man' knows no racial boundaries, it seems).

Shaft is again played by Richard Roundtree and the script is again provided by novelist Ernest Tidyman. Roundtree repeats his performance from the last time out, and, as before, his relentless, impenetrable anger doesn't give much insight into his motivation or elicit much sympathy. But as far as racially-motivated ass-kicking is concerned, Shaft is still the man. The film lifts whenever the action heats up, and there is an eventful and elaborate climax involving a car chase which eventually turns to boats and helicopters. Yet despite the amount of time it takes to get there, there really isn't all that much to it, and there are few of the terse, loaded dialogue exchanges which contributed to the first film's style before the fireworks begin. Tidyman has beefed up the action quotient, and fills the space in between scenes of violent confrontation with limp, indulgent characterisations and an excess of exposition. The only bright spots in the script involve henchman Drew Bundini Brown, again a returning character, whose bemusement with Shaft's machismo provides one shining moment of comic antagonism.

While the elements for a professionally put together and relatively entertaining action/adventure package are all present, the indulgent direction, slow pace, and, particularly, the absence of an Isaac Hayes score (the score this time is provided by Parks himself) hurt the film. It trades heavily on an assumed air of coolness which really comes from its predecessor rather than this particularly entry in the series. Its sense of urban space is also less pronounced than before, as if the liberation of a bigger budget has left Parks and cinematographer Urs Furrer with too many options about where and what to shoot (the settings are so far-flung that Shaft even drives a car this time, having walked his way through most of the first one). Though individual scenes are well photographed (including an evocative graveyard shot which makes good use of snow and headstones to make a colour image appear almost black and white), the story is not particularly well served by them. The environment is less integral to the action than before. This is particularly pronounced in the scenes involving the eccentric white villain, with many shots of a lavish city apartment and fetishistic details in decor and props which make it seem like a James Bond film than an urban drama. The director and the script frequently seem to be in different places, and though Roundtree bustles as well as before and Gunn and Brown give it some interesting moments, the film is indistinct and undistinguished. The impression of deeper content generated by the previous film is not created here (the inclusion of some vague references to urban renewal and an ambiguous ending do not constitute sociopolitical substance), and though a step above the cut-price 'blaxploitation' films which flock around it like seagulls by a liner, the Shaft franchise seems to have self-destructed and exposed its empty underside. Fans will nonetheless enjoy it purely on the level of spectacle, and there are some entertaining moments, but it is a disappointment which in trying to enlarge on the scale of its predecessor has lost too much of what made it a classic of its type.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.