Plot: John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) is a private investigator that has an uncanny knack for cracking cases even the police struggle with, thanks to his connections, his charisma, and his ability to stay cool under pressure. His reputation on the street means he is always well informed, so when he hears a couple of tough guys are looking for him, he knows to keep his guard up. After he gets the drop on the thugs, he checks in with Lt. Androzzi (Charles Cioffi), one of the few at the police department that will give him the time of day. Shaft learns a lot of talk is going around about a big crime about to happen, so he tries to connect the dots to uncover the truth. He soon discovers that a crime boss is involved, but the kingpin insists his own daughter was kidnapped and he needs Shaft to recover the young woman. Shaft can sense there is more to the story, but can he figure out exactly what is going on and get to the bottom of the situation in time, or has he found the case that even he can’t solve?
Entertainment Value: This movie won an Oscar, was added to the National Film Registry, helped launch the blaxploitation genre, and inspired two sequels, seven telefilms, and of course, reboots, so Shaft boasts quite a remarkable pedigree, to say the least. While the film is much more reserved than most of its genre peers, Shaft has all the style and attitude you’d expect from a blaxploitation classic, especially when it comes to lead Richard Roundtree. The script delivers a competent, if basic narrative, but more than compensates in terms of characters, with John Shaft as one of the icons of the genre. I appreciate that Shaft is presented as a bad ass, but also as authentic and on the level, a good guy, but never too good. This is part of the reason the narrative is on the reserved side, since John Shaft isn’t going to go bananas here like Dolemite or Sweet Sweetback would, but it also helps the film stand out from the crowd. So compared to others in the genre, Shaft feels more stable and even slow at times, but you can’t discount the style, music, and Roundtree’s performance. In short, the movie has some issues, but it is an undeniable genre classic that has had a massive cultural impact, so it earns a strong recommendation.
As I said above, the narrative here is capable, but the reason Shaft became a classic is the presence of Richard Roundtree. Simply put, Roundtree’s turn as John Shaft is one of the most iconic characters in cinema and the epitome of cool. If you had to count the number of characters that were inspired by Shaft, it would be enormous and given how Roundtree commands the screen, that should come as no surprise. He isn’t as over the top or bombastic as some blaxploitation leads, but Shaft is much more believable and rooted in real life, which makes him stand out. He is upstanding and no nonsense, but doesn’t come off as holier than thou or even close, as he is given just enough edge to avoid that fate. In essence, he is a flawed, but mostly good person who is presented in a grounded fashion. There’s a reason this is such an enduring, influential character and Roundtree deserves a lot of the credit for that. The cast also includes Moses Gunn, Eddie Barth, Antonio Fargas, and Christopher St. John, while Gordon Parks served as the film’s director.
The Disc: Shaft is available on Blu-ray as a standalone release or as part of the Shaft Trilogy from Warner Archive, which collects all three theatrical installments in the storied franchise. The movie looks terrific in this high definition treatment and that is because it is a marked improvement over previous releases, while keeping the inherent grain that is crucial to Shaft’s visuals. The grain ensures the film has that special 70s grit, but doesn’t impede detail or visual depth in the least. No issues with colors or contrast either, as both look natural in this treatment. On the extras side, we have a brief behind the scenes piece, the telefilm The Killing, and the film’s trailer.