Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Summer School: 'Shaft's Big Score!' (1972)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

From the beginning, Shaft was a more polished mainstream studio production than most blaxploitation movies, and thanks to the first movie's success, the sequel Shaft's Big Score! (released just a year later) obviously had a bigger budget to work with (alongside higher expectations). The result is a larger-scale action movie that has even less of a social or political perspective than the previous movie. Director Gordon Parks and screenwriter Ernest Tidyman (author of the Shaft novels) both return alongside star Richard Roundtree, but Big Score is about cool fight scenes and big set pieces far more than it is about making a statement on American culture.

For starters, most of Big Score takes place in the middle-class suburban areas of Queens, rather than in Harlem as the first movie did. Even gangster Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn), the only other returning character, now wears more traditional tailored suits. The somewhat convoluted story involves Shaft's old friend Cal Asby (Robert Kya-Hill), brother of Shaft's current main squeeze (although of course he has plenty of other squeezes), getting killed by his business partner, casualty of another turf war between white and black gangsters.

Cal and his partner Johnny Kelly (Wally Taylor) ran an illegal numbers racket out of their combined insurance and funeral home business, and Kelly wants to take it over for himself, while also using Cal's money to pay off his gambling debts to crime boss Gus Mascola (Joseph Mascolo). With both Kelly and Mascola looking to have Shaft taken out, Big Score has more clearly defined villains than the first movie did, and Mascola in particular is a typical ridiculous action-movie bad guy, complete with random eccentricities (he lounges around his house in what looks like a kimono, and spends his time playing the clarinet).

Shaft's previous police contact, the rumpled, old-school white Lt. Vic Androzzi (Charles Cioffi), is gone, replaced by the humorless Capt. Bollin (Julius W. Harris), whom Shaft accuses of being a "black honky" in one of the movie's few instances of pointed commentary (there's also a moment when Bollin says "Fuck your rights!" to a black suspect protesting about being roughed up). Bollin isn't a particularly strong addition, but Mascola makes for a fun (if not very credible) villain, and Roundtree remains as charismatic as ever as Shaft. Parks himself takes over the music from Isaac Hayes this time, delivering a jazzier, more disco-oriented score that works best in an extended scene that cross-cuts between a club striptease and Shaft getting beat up by Mascola's goons.

The movie ends with a lengthy helicopter/boat/car/foot chase that shows off the increased resources but goes on way, way too long, and by the time it gets to the final confrontation, Shaft's motivations for taking on the gangsters are a bit confused. The first Shaft movie positioned its title character as a new kind of socially conscious detective; Big Score turns him into just another action hero.

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