By Steve Vivona
Richard Roundtree defined cool as John Shaft, the quintessential hero of the "blaxploitation" genre, a genre that defined African-American cinema in the seventies. "Shaft" wasn't the first blaxploitation film, but it put the genre on the map, and spawned countless imitators, such as "Superfly," "Foxy Brown," "Coffey" and "Cleopatra Jones."
While never as good as "Shaft" these films portrayed African-Americans in heroic roles, often fighting for justice against corrupt police and the underworld. John Shaft personified this hero: a slick, well-dressed ladies man who champions the little guy and isn't afraid of anyone.
The film begins with Isaac Hayes' Oscar-winning theme song, and we see Shaft moving through the streets of Harlem, his fingers on the pulse of everything that goes on there. When he realizes he's being followed Shaft manages to elude his pursuers and surprise them as they lay in wait in his office.
Shaft sends one of the thugs out the window before finding out they were sent by Harlem's top gangster Bumpy Jones (Moses Gunn). Shaft knows that Jones peddles drugs and prostitutes in his neighborhood and would like nothing better than to take him down, but he decides to listen to what the man wants.
Jones claims his daughter has been kidnapped by his enemies and he wants Shaft to rescue her. Against his better judgment Shaft agrees, but he knows Jones is hiding something. At every turn he uncovers a new clue that uncovers Bumpy's true motives.
"Shaft" is without question a classic of its genre, and Richard Roundtree holds his own with the likes of Bogart, Mitchum and McQueen as a smoldering private eye. His performance really captures the heart of a generation, one that is suspicious of authority and desperate to make the ghetto a better place, by any means necessary!
Warner's DVD presentation of "Shaft" is a real treat, and its nice to see them taking care with something that could have been just another catalogue release. Included are trailers for all three of Roundtree's "Shaft" films (also available on DVD from Warner), and a ten-minute featurette shot during the production. The film is presented widescreen and full frame, and the transfer is a revelation after all these years of lousy network TV prints.
The image is sharp and free of speckles or any age-related damage. The colors are sharper and brighter than I've ever seen them. The soundtrack is free of hiss and really packs a punch during action scenes.