J.S., Back

It is nearly 30 years ago. As the movie begins, we see Richard Roundtree walk along New York City streets while Isaac Hayes asks some female backing singers a series of questions that all have the same answer.

"Who's the black private dick who's a sex machine to all the chicks?"

"Shaft!" the girls reply.

"Damn right," Isaac agrees. "Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brother ma-aa-aan?"

When the answer comes again, Isaac is even more approving. "Can you dig it?" he asks his backing singers, who make it clear that they can indeed.

Those questions will be asked again this week, when the new Shaft movie opens (read the review). Whether the answer will be the same is something that remains to be seen. But I offer one piece of advice to those intending to see it: Rent the original first.

The original is a cultural icon, and it deserves to be. It is not a blaxploitation movie, and neither is it a piece of early '70s camp. It is one of the most magnificent pulp movies ever made.

Its premise is simple: John Shaft is "a complicated man," a black private investigator with a frighteningly violent temper and a talent for picking up women that makes James Bond seem like Ralph Malph by comparison. He finds himself caught in an urban war among black power activists, a black drug baron and a group of Italian mobsters. The cops attempt to enlist his help, telling him that there will be a massacre in Harlem if he doesn't work with them to prevent it. He smirkingly declines their offer, telling them, "I appreciate your concern for us minority folks . . ." Then he plays all sides against each other until the movie's bloody conclusion, managing to get royally laid in the process.

The movie is grimly compelling, a grubby noir full of characters who are hard to like and even harder to resist. The dialogue is worthy of Elmore Leonard, and the story moves at a gallop, aided by Isaac Hayes' pumping soundtrack. The sex -- explicit for its time -- carries a rare charge, and the violence, though not graphic at all by today's standards, has a nastiness, a genuine viciousness, that is almost extinct in today's cinema. Roundtree was no great actor, but he was perfect for the role of the cheerful, psychopathic horndog with a social conscience.

There are two sequels -- both available, as is the original, on MGM-Turner home video -- that never came close to the brilliance of the original. Shaft's Big Score! is a ponderous knockoff that never really gets going. Shaft in Africa is worth seeing for its sheer weirdness. Imagine one of those Matt Helm movies that starred Dean Martin, only with the addition of some shocking violence and sex, and you start to get the idea. If it weren't for the atrocious dialogue, you might imagine that John Waters was involved somewhere.

Now we have the Samuel L. Jackson version. Judging by the high camp apparent in the trailers, it looks like great fun, and at least Isaac's song is on the soundtrack, but hit the video store to decide for yourself.

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Barry Graham