Genre: Action and Crime Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 40 min.
Release Date: July 2nd, 1971 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Gordon Parks Actors: Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn, Charles Cioffi, Christopher St. John, Gwenn Mitchell, Lawrence Pressman, Victor Arnold, Sherri Brewer, Camille Yarbrough, Margaret Warncke
o some exceptionally snazzy music (by Isaac Hayes), John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) exits the New York subway and strolls across a busy street, flipping off the cabs and cars that honk at his brazen pedestrian maneuvers. Clad all in varying shades of brown, capped by a lengthy leather trench coat, the character exudes cool – even before doing much of anything. Soon, it’s revealed that he’s a savvy private eye, which gives him an even greater note of formidability.
“Now be cool, man.” When Shaft stops for a shoeshine, he’s informed that a couple of men have been asking around for him. As it turns out, 38th Precinct cops Lieutenant Vic Androzzi (Charles Cioffi) and partner Tom Hannon (Lawrence Pressman) also want a word with the streetwise investigator. But Shaft only answers to himself; and he’s not keen on spilling his guts to peripheral acquaintances. “You don’t lean on that guy.”
Within the first few minutes, a fistfight breaks out and a thug gets dramatically defenestrated. It’s an amusing start to a simple plot of a tight-lipped flatfoot playing by his own rules, contending with racial tensions, and avoiding an untimely demise at the hands of well-connected, organized criminal Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn). Shaft talks a big game, seemingly unafraid of white politicians and black gangsters alike; of course, he can back it up with his fists, his firearm, and his brains. A kidnapping job complicates matters, prompting Shaft to descend into the underworld of underworlds, but he never loses his composure.
With its renegade style of filmmaking, full of effective close-ups, hand-held camerawork, on-location shooting, and a general ruggedness in sets and costumes and character designs, “Shaft” boasts an uncommon authenticity. It may be less glamorous and a touch unpolished when compared to its bigger-budgeted brethren, but the grittiness serves it well, joining the likes of “The French Connection,” “The Seven-Ups,” “The Outfit,” and more as an example of ’70s crime dramas pushing to exhibit a more realistic ugliness through violence and severe situations. In this new wave of police procedurals and murder mysteries, there’s very little room for comic relief or levity.
A couple of laughs do surface, however, particularly with the dialogue, which is one of the highlights. The conversations overflow with colorful slang (and jive) and some of the most hilariously brawny tough-guy exchanges in cinema. Shaft appears impervious to intimidation; and his various lovers are helpless against his charms. As he gathers clues and inches closer to the kidnap victim and a potential mafia war, a noticeable slowness brews, allowing for negotiations, an intricate infiltration (the finale essentially takes on the vibe of a heist movie), and the setup for an explosive showdown. However, even when interactions remain low-key, Shaft’s screen presence and larger-than-life attitude are enough to spice things up.
– Mike Massie