Richard Roundtree cuts a startlingly new and powerful heroic figure as John Shaft, "the cat who won't cop out, when there's danger all about" in Gordon Parks' seminal action film, Shaft. John Shaft is a black private eye with a small office near Times Square. On his way there one day, he gets pumped for information by Lt. Victor Androzzi (Charles Cioffi), a friend of his on the police force, about something big going down in Harlem involving black crime kingpin Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn). Shaft can't help him and leaves, only to just miss being waylaid by two of Bumpy's strong-arm men at his office, one of whom ends up dead on the pavement eight floors or so below. Squeezed by the cops, who are holding a potential manslaughter arrest over his head, Shaft contacts Bumpy, who reveals that his teenage daughter, whom he's always kept away from his business, has been kidnapped. There's been no ransom demand and no clue as to who did it, and he wants Shaft to find the culprits, insisting that he start with a group of Harlem-based black militants led by Shaft's onetime friend Ben Buford (Christopher St. John). No sooner does he find Buford, holed up in a decaying part of Harlem, however, than his friend's comrades are mowed down by submachine gun fire, and Shaft and Buford barely escape. With Shaft angry and out for blood, everyone is forced to come clean -- Bumpy knows that it's the Mafia that kidnapped his daughter, as they want in on the Harlem drug trade that he controls; they're holding her somewhere else outside of Harlem, where his men are no good to him, which is why he wanted Shaft to hook up with Buford. Androzzi tells Shaft that a dozen Mob trigger men from out of town have been spotted in Greenwich Village. He doesn't know why they're there, but he does know that if fighting breaks out between Bumpy's men and the Mafia, it's going to look like a race war, and the whole city could erupt. Shaft doesn't like the way he's been manipulated, but he sees Androzzi's point -- he links the trigger men to the kidnapping and finds the girl, but loses her again, getting shot in the process. Even though he's wounded, Shaft heads for a final confrontation with the kidnappers, supported by Ben's friends in an armed assault on the building where they're holed up.
I always see this movie as a great Harlem detective story. Shafts pulsate with street-level lingo and a deep sense of conviction you can help but admire. In the great tradition of detective movies Shaft is clearly a hard-bitten loner who spars with friends and foe alike, then gets just what he wants from everyone. Even though "Shaft" was an MGM release it was clearly intended for the black audience Hollywood had always ignored. The attitude of Shaft is what set it apart - it made no effort to court the white audience at all. John Shaft kept his mouth shut for nobody, and wasn't interested in carrying a civics lesson or being an ambassador from an alien race. He was openly promiscuous, keeping at least a couple of steady women on his string, and taking in the occasional admiring prostitute. He talked dirty, told white cops where to get off, pushed around the toughest of the black mobsters, and made mincemeat of adversaries both black and white. A year before "The Godfather," the Mafia of Shaft consisted of fairly accurate Italian goombah types Shaft had no trouble letting loose with the ethnic slurs either. In other words, "Shaft" was a fresh dose of reality, in 70s parlance, 'telling it like it is.' This script showed no influence of studio influence, whatsoever. Shaft has a good New York look. The overall atmosphere is great, a mixture of dingy, claustrophobic hotel rooms and neglected city streets. A lot of the action appears to take place around Times Square, which was quite a different place in 1970 - much rougher, much more rundown. Shaft must hold the record for the number of movie marquees on view in one film I'd guess it was filmed in late Summer-Early fall with what's playing in downtown Manhattan. Roundtree fills out the role believably while the surrounding cast work well together, even if the stereotype line is occasionally breached. Several nice moments in the script carry the film over its dull passages, all leading up to a great ending.
More than 1 year ago
"Shaft" as a soundtrack album is a cool entertainment experience; as a film it is less so. Directed by famed photographer Gordon Parks in a frustratingly plodding fashion and with curiously little feel for his urban settings, the film is further handicapped by a tepid script by Ernest Tidyman (from his own novel) that is a patchwork of all the tired plot devices already done to death by the era's television crime dramas. (Mannix, anyone?) Richard Roundtree plays tough private eye John Shaft as fashion model; walking down the street in his leather jacket, he looks cool (being underscored by Isaac Hayes' music helps), but the second he opens his mouth he sounds like a prissy fusspot, with his "heated by-play" with police detective Charles Cioffi coming across as amateurish and embarrasing. The plot, involving the kidnapping of the daughter of a Harlem gangster, (played by the usually reliable Moses Gunn, who in this case simply looks weary) plays out by-the-numbers until it's not-so-thrilling climax. The film's reputation, built on a breakthrough portrayal of a black protagonist who won't take any crap from "the Man" is unwarranted (compare any scene in this film to the thrilling moment in "In the Heat of the Night" when Sidney Poitier's Virgil Tibbs slaps the face of a Southern White powerbroker-a seminal moment in racially cowardly Hollywood) as Shaft merely seems like a guy who's cranky with everyone, regardless of race, and in need of a good night's rest. (Listening to the lyrics of Haye's iconic theme song, one suspects the inspiration for Shaft might be Chester Hime's classic detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones,but to little effect.) The film is credited with the explosion of Blaxploitation cinema in the early 1970's (this is ignoring the previous year's "Cotton Comes to Harlem" and earlier films by Melvin Van Peebles), but the film is actually only responsible for a pair of unfortunate sequels. The DVD is grainy but that perfectly reflects the original theatrical experience. Extras include an interesting short of Gordon Parks directing scenes from the film, and a smashing short of Hayes and his musicians seemingly improvising parts of the score before the camera that is worth the price of the disc alone.