Rated R for nudity, sex, violence, and language. If the original Shaft felt a little tame, this is Gordon Parks letting a bit more loose. By no means is it necessarily vulgar or shameless, but it is definitely less ashamed to be what it is. I'm going to make the comparison to James Bond a lot in this blog, so just be aware that Bond also pushes the envelope a bit more.
DIRECTOR: Gordon Parks
I am struggling for air. There was some dramatic news today at work that might affect if I can ever write this blog again. Blogging about every movie I watch is one of those habits that is good for me, but is part of my stress. It's not that I won't choose to do it. It's just that I don't know if I will have time to do it. Do you know how some people say that you make time for the important things? If things go poorly, finding time to write a blog about every movie I see will be like squeezing water from a stone. But let's make the most out of it while I can. Sure, I'm emotionally drained, but maybe I'll find joy from writing for half-an-hour.
Now, this is what I thought Shaft was all about. I sometimes see people wearing Superman T-shirts or having Superman decals on their cars. I don't want to gatekeep. If Superman is just the logo to them, that's completely reasonable. We kind of understand that Superman, as a concept, transcends Superman as either a cartoon, a movie, or a comic book character. For a long time, that's what Shaft was for me. It was the Isaac Hayes thing. It was an element of cultural literacy. He was the face of Blaxspoitation and he just seemed really cool. But my first real exposure to Shaft was the 2000 movie with Samuel L. Jackson. Sure, he was cool then, but it was more about seeing Samuel L. Jackson beat dudes up to the Shaft theme song. When I finally watched the first movie, Shaft became something very different for me. It was an MGM film that kind of fed into what a lot of the '70s were already feeding me. It was a detective story that didn't make a lot of sense. The name was supposed to sell it, kind of like I mentioned with Klute. I was actually pretty disappointed to find out that the Criterion for Shaft came with Shaft's Big Score! because I wasn't planning on writing on all of the Shaft movies. But I might just have to change that.
I told you that I would be making comparisons to James Bond and here's the pay-off. What Shaft's Big Score does for Shaft is what From Russia with Love does for Dr. No. Everything about Dr. No, divorced from the cultural understanding of what James Bond would eventually become, is actually kind of a forgettable movie. I'm sorry. I like it, but it definitely reads as a detective novel based upon the world of Ian Fleming. Bond's jokes are blunted. He doesn't really have that many flings so much as women are interested in him. While the eponymous Dr. No is doing some heavy hitting crime, the world of that crime is basically localized to Jamaica. It all feels...small, for a James Bond story that is. But when From Russia with Love came out? Everything changed. Everything gained a sense of scope that made us realize that James Bond was not just one thing. The hero would be the same, but the stories would be different. The irony of everything that I have written is that Bond would eventually become a formula. But Shaft never really had that many movies. It didn't really have time to fall into the realm of formula.
I mean, it's like they took the Bond playbook and applied it to Parks's film. Even down to the fact that there's a second theme song that is not nearly as well known as Isaac Hayes's classic is kind of a testament to what was going on with this movie. The story actually kind of makes a lot of sense. I'll go as far as to say that the first Shaft has a lot of the same plot problems that Dr. No has. The characters kind of just end up where they are supposed to be, take a lot of damage, and save the day. But with Shaft's Big Score!, there's a story that absolutely works and has some sense of cohesion. I'm not saying I get every beat. I really don't. The whole subplot with Kelly playing off the separate criminal groups is a bit confusing. But the story of Shaft trying to beat out everyone to finding the lost money? Holey moley it works. On top of that, everything just feels tighter when it comes to storytelling and editing. I'm actually kind of shocked that Shaft's Big Score! gets kind of ignored considering that it was just considered a bonus feature on a Criterion double disc set.
In the last Shaft blog, I talked a little bit about Shaft's murky morality. Shaft enters this area of Grey Jedi (I'm going to make a confession. I haven't actually seen that season of The Clone Wars yet, but know enough to fake it) where that kind of becomes his code. Much like a Ronin, Shaft has to dabble in questionable morality for him to succeed. For the sake of the story that the audience watches, Shaft is the good guy. The movie actually locks in that he's a good guy by saving the money for the Bronx children's hospital or center. (I now forget and refuse to look it up.) But Shaft also is quickly comfortable with buddying up with bad dudes in this one. Yeah, he ends up taking them all out, but only once they abuse their relationships with him. I do appreciate, once again, the Bondian influence of bad guy in this one. There's a guy whose entire persona is playing the clarinet and being polite. And Shaft beats the living daylights (pun intended) out of him. It's just so on brand for what I understood Shaft to be that I can't help but smile while watching the movie.
But my biggest takeaway from this movie is Gordon Parks himself. Gordon Parks did the first film. He does a pretty good job. He made the studio a lot of money. He quickly turns around and makes another Shaft movie. It's adapted from a series of books, so it at least makes sense how he can get a script together in an absurdly short amount of time. But Parks was kind of a revolutionary. I read the insert from the Criterion Blu-ray, something I never do. (I appreciate the books and booklets, but who has the time?) Parks is genuinely being a filmmaker here. He fights an uphill battle to get Shaft part of the mainstream, but then makes a movie that ramps up all the stakes? I mean, Shaft chases a helicopter, drives a boat, flees a helicopter on foot? How does this movie exist? It becomes way more of a fun movie. Yeah, the first film ends with Shaft massacring a hotel full of bad guys. But there's almost no choreography in that sequence. (Except for the rappelling in through the window, which is admittedly peak Shaft.) Sure, it gets absurd that Shaft doesn't die in this sequence, especially when chased on foot down a path that the guy can't miss. But that sequence would hold its own against a Bond movie any day. It's really fun and the whole film is just a good time.
I went from being "Let's get his over with" to actively watching this and wanting to finish the franchise. I mean, I admitted to having already seen the 2000s edition. Why not watch it again with the cultural context I drastically needed? Shaft's Big Score is good enough to merit watching Shaft in Africa and the reboot of Shaft. That might be a testament to the film itself.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.