From Bullitt to Dirty Harry, 60s and 70s Hollywood was full of “tough cops with an attitude”, and John Shaft, played by Richard Roundtree (Speed Racer), was the black version. While not exactly a cop, Shaft is nevertheless a New York private detective, who operates in Harlem and doesn’t take shit from anybody, be it the bad guys or the cops, be it his foes, friends or lovers.
In the film, made to capitalize on the “blaxploitation” trend of the time, which had just started, smooth-talking Shaft is hired by local black mob boss Bumpy Jonas to find and rescue his kidnapped daughter. Along the way, Shaft will do plenty of walking around, plenty of smooth-talking, plenty of not taking shit from anybody, plenty of lovin’, and a little bit of action too.
Co-starring with Roundtree are Moses Gunn (Firestarter) and Charles Cioffi (Shadow Conspiracy). Shaft was directed by Gordon Parks (Leadbelly) and is based on a novel by Ernest Tidyman (Air Force One), who adapted the book with John D.F. Black (Trouble Man). Trailer and review after the jump.
While not as good as Dirty Harry, Shaft is a very solid entry in the genre. Being a product of blaxploitation, there’s a lot of groovy music, people saying “jive” all the time, and talk of black versus white. All this is part of the movie’s appeal, and while the plot is pretty straightforward and there isn’t that much action per se, Shaft still delivers. Indeed, Gordon Parks creates a great feeling of suspense, keeps things cool throughout, and the final sequence is simply superb.
The only fault I found with Shaft is some rather poor sound work, however you get used to it pretty quick. So, while Shaft may turn off some modern viewers used to more action-packed cop movies, I’d recommend you give it a chance. The 1971 hit, best known for it’s Oscar-winning theme song by the late Isaac Hayes, is very solid entertainment that shouldn’t be forgotten.
Shaft was a surpise hit upon its release, and was swiftly followed by two theatrical sequels and seven TV-movies, all starring Roundtree. In a failed attempt to resurrect the franchise, a last, eponymous, theatrical sequel was released in 2000, with Samuel L. Jackson taking over as Shaft’s nephew, also called John Shaft.