Directed and Music by Gordon Parks
Produced and Written by Ernest Tidyman
Cinematography by Urs Furrer
Edited by Harry Howard
There’s no way to accurately describe exactly how much of a huge impact the original “Shaft” had when it hit movie screens back in 1971. I was too young to see it back then but I know that my mother and father went to see it at least three times. And they weren’t the only ones. The original “Shaft” is acknowledged as being one of the true classics of blaxploitation cinema, it’s also simply a damn good urban detective story. And it’s the movie that saved MGM from bankruptcy. Thanks to the direction of Gordon Parks, the legendary soundtrack by Isacc Hayes, the tough, hard-boiled screenplay by Ernest Tidyman and John D. F. Black all wrapped around the slick coolness of Richard Roundtree, “Shaft” is a movie of cultural and cinematic significance that gave the world the first true black action hero.
SHAFT’S BIG SCORE! Isn’t the same league, unfortunately. Oh, it’s well worth watching and you won’t be wasting your time. It’s just that of the three original “Shaft” movies, it’s the weakest. Both “Shaft” and “Shaft In Africa” are much better stories with better characters and motivations but we’ll deal with that when I get around to reviewing them.
SHAFT’S BIG SCORE! Starts out with John Shaft getting a call in the middle of the night from a friend who’s in trouble. Trouble enough to get the man blown to bits by a bomb in his office. Shaft’s friend had a quarter of a million dollars that was supposed to go toward the building of a child care clinic in Harlem. The money didn’t get blown up so that means that somebody has it and Shaft means to find out who and avenge his friend’s death.
The logical suspect is Johnny Kelly (Wally Taylor) who was partnered with the dead man. Kelly’s into some heavy bread he owes mob boss Gus Mascola (Joseph Mascolo) and that missing quarter mil would do the trick. Mascola either wants his money back or fifty percent of Kelly’s numbers racket. In order to get Mascola off his back, Kelly agrees to split his business with Harlem’s mob boss Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) and then makes the same deal to Mascola to instigate a war between the two. And Shaft’s right in the middle as he has to navigate his way between the two mob bosses looking for the money as well as staying clear of police captain Bollin (Julius W. Harris) who thinks that Shaft knows a lot more than he’s saying since he’s been sleeping with the dead man’s sister.
SHAFT’S BIG SCORE! has a lot going for it. Richard Roundtree, of course. He’s backed up by the great Julius W. Harris and the even greater Moses Gunn, who reprises his role from the first movie. Drew Bundini Brown is also back as Bumpy’s right-hand man Willy and he and Roundtree exchange some pretty funny insults back and forth. And I like having a black police captain antagonizing Shaft. Both of them are black men but who come from two totally different ways of thinking and doing things.
Gus Mascola is an interesting bad guy in that I really don’t consider him the bad guy. After all, all he wants is money that he is rightfully owed. Mascola doesn’t believe in violence or threats and behaves like he’s got some sense. Unlike his lieutenant Pascal (Joe Santos) whose first reaction to anything is either a bullet in the head or breaking limbs. The scenes with Mascola conducting his business have some humor to them as while he does so he indulges in his hobbies such as gourmet cooking and clarinet playing.
But it’s the motivation that is flat. Although we’re told that the dead man is a good friend of Shaft’s, it’s hard to believe that since once the body is toted off to the morgue, it’s all about finding the money. And Shaft doesn’t seem to be all that much in love with the sister. We see him in bed with her briefly at the movie’s start but judging by their later interactions, that must have been a booty call, more or less.
And Johnny Kelly isn’t much of a bad guy, either. He’s a weasel, plain and simple who lies to Bumpy and Mascola to get them to fight each other and hopefully kill each other off. He’s too much of a coward to do his own dirty work and backs down from every man-to-man confrontation but talks tough to and slaps around his girlfriend.
There are some pretty good fight scene and the conclusion involves Shaft in a speedboat being chased by a helicopter. There’s no Isacc Hayes score this time around. But being the Renaissance man that he was, Gordon Parks himself did the score.
As I said earlier, I don’t feel that SHAFT’S BIG SCORE! is anywhere in the same league as “Shaft” or “Shaft In Africa” but it’s entertaining, it’s fun and it’s worth watching.