Plot: A series of murders has baffled police, as these killings have been unusual even by New York City’s standards. The strange circumstances around the deaths aren’t the only odd part of the crimes, as the victims seem to be criminals who were tried and found not guilty. This of course is highly suspicious, but when a prominent defense attorney is killed after he is able to get his client acquitted, it raises even more red flags and police know drastic action must be taken. To that end, they call in private detective John Shaft (Richard Roundtree), who knows the streets better than anyone and has a knack for uncovering buried leads. Although Shaft is unaware at the time, the killings aren’t the work of a rogue cop or some twisted murderer, instead a group of the city’s top leaders are behind the crimes. Led by Marshall Cunningham (Robert Culp), whose wife was raped and denied justice, this panel kidnaps the acquitted crooks, passes their own judgment, and carries out the sentence. Will this committee of vigilantes be allowed to continue or can Shaft unlock this mystery?
Entertainment Value: The Executioners was the first of seven made for television movies that feature Richard Roundtree as Shaft, an icon who inspired an entire genre of cinema. As these were broadcast on network television in the 70s, you can’t expect them to offer the same kind of content as the Shaft movies, which seems to be the main complaint about the telefilms. In the case of The Executioners, we have a fun, 70s cop show movie that might not be blaxploitation, but still offers solid entertainment. If nothing else, it is just cool to see Shaft back in action, though of course network tv isn’t going to allow the seedier elements. But Shaft is still a bad man and honestly, it is kind of surreal to see the character in this cop show environment. So yes, he is a toned down version, but still fun to watch and for fans of 70s cop shows, there is a lot to like even beyond Roundtree’s presence. Robert Culp spins a quirky villain performance, while the cast also includes Richard Jaeckel, Eddie Barth, and Rafael Campos. I loved all the 70s cop show stereotypes as well, with a lot of world weary, raspy voiced detectives looming in almost every scene. If you can get past the fact that Shaft has been watered down and look at this for the 70s cop show elements, The Executioners is solid fun and Culp makes an interesting, if not always convincing villain.
No nakedness, no blood. This is a 70s made for tv movie, so to expect wild sleaze or gore is a little unrealistic. I do think the character of Shaft suffers being in such a restrained environment, but he is just one piece of the puzzle in The Executioners. This is mostly an ensemble piece, that happens to have a beloved, high profile movie character on the roster. There is a minor amount of gunplay involved, but not much and the violence is never graphic or over the top. The dialogue is fun, with a lot of raspy, breathy detective talk, law and order talk, and Shaft showing off his charisma and charm. Not a lot of wild lines, but the characters are pretty colorful and have some fun moments. Culp as a villain feels a little off, so he adds more camp than menace, but I didn’t mind that. A few really great lines emerge as well, including my personal highlight, in which a detective describes cause of death as “oddball.” In terms of craziness, this one never really ramps up toward mania, as it sticks close to cop show conventions and that’s not a bad thing. Culp adds a touch of camp with his attempt at being a bad guy, but otherwise, not much lunacy here.
Overall Insanity: 0/10