With 1971's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, the world was presented with a new kind of genre in film - Blaxploitation. Hot on its heels was the mega-hit Shaft. This small little movie not only had a fun time telling a tale of a private investigator thrown into the hellish cityscape of mobsters and gangs, but the movie also reveal a ton of heart and soul related to significant political and social issues of the time, that is even still relevant today. Plus, everyone was talking about the legend that is Isaac Hayes and his beautiful soulful, groovy music. Criterion brings this film to 4K with a grand Dolby Vision enhancement, two audio options, and a treasure trove of bonus features, including the entire sequel film. Highly Recommended!
Shaft changed the cinema landscape in 1971 for the American crime action film genre. Director Gordon Parks took the novel of the same name by Ernest Tidyman and John D. F. Black and adapted the story of a suave private investigator who gets caught in the middle of two rival organized crime families in New York. What looked to be a simple, fun straight-shooting movie turned into an international phenomenon that had poignant elements of the Black Power movement and sexuality that birthed the Blaxploitation movie genre and jump-started the career of many individuals. Not only that, Shaft paved the way for tons of filmmakers and even won numerous awards including Oscars, and was added to the National Film Registry twenty-two years ago for being culturally significant and important.
Before Shaft, there really wasn't a big feature film that represented people of color in this light. Its themes of race, masculinity, and feminism, along with its gracious sexuality really propels the film and its character into cult status. Filmed mostly in Harlem, in addition to most of the boroughs of New York City, Shaft captures the true essence of the Black Power movement in the early '70s by showcasing the beautiful people who lived in these neighborhoods and their raw and unbridled emotions of what was going on politically and racially at the time. That's where the iconic bass character of John Shaft enters the picture playing a slick and well-liked private investigator, who is basically a superhero incarnate.
John Shaft is hired by a very powerful African-American crime boss to track down his daughter who has been kidnapped somewhere in the city. It turns out, that the Italian Mafia completed the deed, forcing Shaft to get involved with multiple crime families while trying to survive the brutality of these criminals who are after him. Luckily, he has the help of some militant groups and a few lovely ladies. It's a pretty straightforward plot that would later turn into some over-the-top storylines and adventures in the two future sequels. But with this first film, things are kept grounded in order to appeal to a wider audience and to keep in line with its budget. It wasn't until after the success of this film that it realized how quirky and fun it really could be.
Richard Roundtree plays John Shaft and is simply flawless in this role. His charm, wit, and power just command each scene he's in. He has a tender side and a brutal side that comes together to stop the criminals and love the ladies. Roundtree evoked that unique strong will and charisma of Fred Williamson and even Rudy Ray Moore's subtle comedy for this role and really transcended this character into superstardom with this highly entertaining role. Even though its two sequels had more over-the-top thrills and comedy, this original Shaft film checked all the boxes with its tone, character, and political statements about the current social climate in big-city USA. And of course, John Shaft would be nothing whatsoever without his theme song by the legend Isaac Hayes who provided the award-winning and still fantastic theme song and score that is still used today to promote an image of being cool.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Shaft grooves its way to 4K + Blu-ray via the amazing Criterion Collection. There are three discs included here. One is the 4K presentation of the film, the other two are the Blu-ray Discs containing the movie and all the bonus features. The discs are housed inside a hard, clear plastic case. There is no cardboard sleeve here. This is spine #1130 and comes with a booklet featuring info about the cast, crew, tech specs, and an essay. The artwork has a purple and punk color palette with original artwork from the film with various characters and action beats.
Shaft comes with an impressive 2160p UHD 4K transfer with Dolby Vision. According to the Criterion Booklet, this new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution from the original 35mm camera negative. Some of the footage was damaged in that original camera negative, so a duplicate negative was used in those instances. For those sections, the original yellow, cyan, and magenta separation masters were independently scanned and recombined to replace the inferior footage. Needless to say, Criterion rolled out the red carpet for this amazing-looking video presentation.
Criterion did such an exquisite job with this remastering that it's difficult to believe that this movie is over fifty years old at times. It still looks gorgeous. The color palette has the raw, gritty New York vibe that contains natural steel city elements. Brown and red bricks on buildings and silver skyscrapers look amazing here. The neon lighting of storefronts reveals red and green colors that are vibrant and striking. The Dolby Vision enhances darker shades of color inside warehouses and lower-lit interiors that give way to the tan and brown suits. Pink bed sheets, red outfits, and that black leather jacket all look excellent in these nuanced color shades. The black levels are rich and inky throughout, contrasting nicely with the warmer colors of the wardrobe and being discernible between skin tones and hair. Some of those shots of the exterior of New York look like they could have been shot with new cameras today. That's how great this transfer is.
The detail is sharp and vivid throughout as well. Closeups reveal individual hairs, facial pores, practical effects, and the many textures in the fantastic wardrobe worn by each character. wider shots contain all the necessary grit and grime from store signs and the streets of New York City. The clarity and depth of each scene look phenomenal and while it may fluctuate due to the original source, Criterion has made it look seamless. Camera pans and movements look much smoother and transition easier with this 4K image than with the 1080p HD version. Lastly, there are no issues with aliasing, banding, or noise.
This release comes with two audio options. There is an English LPCM 1.0 Mono track and an LPCM 2.0 Stereo option. Both sound great, but one could have hoped for a new 5.1 mix. Still, the Mono track is the way to go here. This Mono mix is robust and well-balanced that adds all the great sound effects, dialogue, and impressive score. The gun blasts, vehicle sounds, and other ambient sound effects all sound great.
There is some heft to each sound as well. The big difference between the two options is that the stereo mix has the separation between the two speakers, but the overall sound quality isn't much different. Again, the Mono mix sounded a bit better here, but it would have been nice to offer a new 5.1 that contained a bigger amount of bass and low end to really drive home those action beats and score.
There are a whopping 335 minutes worth of bonus material. This includes a ton of interviews with the cast, crew, and Isaac Hayes that are both vintage and recent. Trailers, behind-the-scenes, and film scholars all are included here talking about the film. Also, the sequel film Shaft's Big Score is included in the bonus features as well, meaning, two films for the price of one here.
4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
There are no bonus features included on the 4K Disc.
Blu-ray Disc One
Blu-ray Disc Two
The original Shaft movie still holds up well and is a small glimpse into a big world that inspired and started a whole movie genre for years to come. Countless movies, characters, and filmmakers drew on Shaft as inspiration for their own pieces of cinema. Not only is Shaft culturally and politically poignant now as it was some fifty years ago, but it's also one of the coolest movies ever made. Criterion hits a grand slam with their release on 4K with Dolby Vision and their dual audio mixes. Not to mention, there are hours upon hours of bonus features including the sequel to the original film. Highly Recommended!