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Remembering Richard Roundtree's 70's film legacy

Updated: Oct 27, 2023


I was so sorry to hear about the passing of another 70's film legend yesterday, Richard Roundtree. I had the chance to meet Roundtree in New York City.

I was staying at The Mondrian about 10 years ago, and was coming out of my room. At the same time, Richard Roundtree came out of the room next door. I nodded and said "John Shaft..." and he just turned with a smile and nodded "How ya doin, baby."

It was like Frank Sinatra tipping his hat to you. Roundtree WAS John Shaft cool in real life too. It remains one of my favorite celebrity encounters.

The man WAS cool.

A huge star in the early 70's, Roundtree balanced his excellent blaxploitation films of the Shaft series with other big budget films.

Here's a look at some of my favorites below, saving my favorite for last.

RIP Mr. Roundtree, your film legacy will be fondly remembered by students of seventies cinema for generations to come.



City Heat

In 1984, Warner Bros. expected their big holiday release CITY HEAT to be a massive blockbuster.

Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds were the two biggest box office stars of the day, comedy genius Blake Edwards (10, The Pink Panther) wrote the screenplay and was set to direct.

After Edwards was pushed out of the project, comic actor Richard Benjamin took the chair and Eastwood favorite Joseph Stinson came on to rewrite the script (why?!).

Benjamin had shown some chops with his first directing effort “My Favorite Year” but that film as likely more representative of Peter O’Toole’s brilliance than Benjamins. He doesn’t bring much to the table this time out.

Reynolds broke his jaw and hurt his back early in the filming and it limited his physical movement for the rest of the film, not ideal for an “action comedy”.

Eastwood stars as hardened cop Lieutenant Speer, at odds with Mike Murphy (Reynolds) who left the force under cloudy circumstances. Murphy is a gumshoe now and anytime their paths cross, Speer & Murphy battle with fists and words.

Some of the dialogue is funny and well delivered by Reynolds, but he always seems more like he’s sparring with Clint on the Johnny Carson show than in a 1930’s crime drama/comedy.

Jane Alexander and Madeline Kahn are both terrific in broadly written roles, Rip Torn and Richard Roundtree deliver.

I loved Roundtree and Reynolds detective agency partnership in the film. There was a lot to mine in that partnership, but it’s sadly left unexplored, and Roundtree is gone all too soon.

It all feels very familiar. Rival gang bosses go missing, accounting ledgers are stolen and lots of tommy guns spray the Warner Bros backlot. All the money must have been spent on the cast, as the production looks depressingly cheap.

Eastwood squints winningly, Reynolds pain pills keep his usual screen charm in check and the entire affair stumbles along to a predictable shoot out. With Burt unable to physically do much beyond hide behind period cars, its static and clumsy.

Those two words serve as a pretty good summary of CITY HEAT, which only earns a lukewarm C.

(Don't stay for the end titles, accompanied by one of the worst end credits songs ever. Irene Cara sung "Fame" and "Flashdance" in those 80's hits, but the tune she's given here is as flat as her acting. Oof.)


Shaft in Africa

The third and final film in the original Richard Roundtree SHAFT trilogy, 1973’s SHAFT IN AFRICA is a pretty entertaining crime thriller that hops the globe from NYC to Africa to France.

Armed with a much bigger budget than the first two films in the series, it opens in France, where a modern day (well at least an early seventies modern-day) slave ring is bringing truckloads of people into France, forcing them to live huddled in a couple rooms and charging them most of their pay for their cramped quarters.

When the crime ring kills the son of royalty, the royal family reps come to NYC and enlist private detective John Shaft (Roundtree) to go undercover in the ring in Africa. They arm him with a big old club with camera equipment inside and Shaft takes off Bond-style to Africa.

Like OO7, Shaft manages to battle plenty of henchmen and get a lecture from the bad guys with all the details of their plan. Shaft also finds time in his adventures to bed several beautiful women, including Vonetta McGee (a major star at the time in “Hammer” and “Blacula”, both major box-office hits of the era) and the kinky mistress of the Bond-villain like Amafi (played with major menace by Frank Finlay).

The screenplay is by Ernest Tidyman (The French Connection) and Sterling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night, The Towering Inferno) and John Guillermin, who also directed The Blue Max and The Towering Inferno, directs it. He keeps the action moving all the way to its fast paced conclusion at a huge estate outside Paris.

Roundtree is a lot of fun as Shaft, beating up bad guys all over the world and proving every bit as resourceful as his licensed to kill counterpart.

Johnny Pate provides some great music, including the Four Tops hit “Are You Man Enough”.

It’s all very dated and pretty hilarious sometimes in its seventies “cool” dialogue. It’s loaded with that era’s frank sex and nudity and doesn’t pull any punches. It didn’t get any cooler than Roundtree as John Shaft in the early seventies.

His final adventure of the series gets a B-.


Shaft (2019)

One of the funniest and most enjoyable sequels/re-imaginings I've seen in recent years, SHAFT is a blast from the past.

Loaded with grin inducing references to all the earlier films, SHAFT kicks off with a couple decade flashback to Detective John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson having a very good time) and his wife Maya (Regina Hall) getting ambushed outside a bail bondsman's office. Bullets fly and mayhem reigns until we eventually realize that John Jr. is less than a year old in his car seat. The titles cleverly depict the next 20+ years, with 70's style titles and montages wordlessly depicting the years.

Then we meet John Jr, now an MIT grad and cocky new analyst at the FBI. Jr is well played by Jessie T. Usher (The Boys) as a preppy nerd with a lot of intel but zero swagger.

When the death of a friend points to a much bigger terrorist plot, John Jr goes to his Dad (Jackson) who he has never met, except through am amazingly clueless and hilarious series of Christmas gifts.

Watching Shaft, the old fashioned epitome of macho cool observing his son in action provides more laugh out loud moments than plenty of comedies I've seen lately.

It's a clever balance of nostalgia, tribute and send up that deftly merges comedy with action thriller.

The suspects get bigger, the crimes grow more large scale and soon Jr and John are turning to John Shaft Sr (Richard Roundtree, still effortlessly cool) for a whole lot of weaponry.

The final showdown is a blast, unloading a hail of bullets, heroics, testosterone and family bonding.

Kenya Barris (blackish) delivers plenty of great one-liners, conflict and violence, hearkening back to a MUCH less sensitive time when the world wasn't so anxious to be offended. It earns its R rating.

Maybe that's why the film bombed at the box office. It was probably too much for the more sensitive audiences of today waiting to be offended by EVERYTHING.

I loved it. Jackson's hilarious and Roundtree is fantastic. He's only in he last twenty minutes and he owns it.

I laughed from beginning to end, loved the references to the 70's originals and the way that Issac Hayes theme song wove into the background at all the right moments.

Ignore the box office. If you have fond memories of the previous films, check out SHAFT.

I loved it. They say that John Shaft is a bad...Shut yer mouth....he gets an enjoyable B!


Earthquake

Do you remember seeing EARTHQUAKE back in 1974 in the theatre in 'Sensurround". It was basically the theatre's bass turned up so loud during quake sequences that it shook the building. (The old Bethany Home theatre in Phoenix actually got cracks in it from "Earthquake's" run according to Republic stories of the time!) Well nearly 40 years later (WOW-let that fact soak in for a minute!), even with the base turned up, Earthquake is much worse for wear. This is classic 70's disaster, which means lots of stock characters with no arc, a HORRIBLE screenplay, which is unbelievably co-written by Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather (the three minute scene between Charlton Heston and Genevieve Bujold at her house pre-quake I had to watch twice just to fathom how crappy the writing was) and some good, juicy, summer FUN! This is one of those classics from my teen years where I can just throw out all the crap and savor the great parts, which are all the quake sequences, any Richard Roundtree scene, Cory's rescue in the LA canal, great matte paintings of a devastated Los Angeles and the closing Dam failure sequences. Total disaster garbage, and still a fun, guilty pleasure! B


Shaft (2000)

Based on the box office, I might have been one of the very few to see and really enjoy 2019's "Shaft" reboot featuring three generations of the Shaft family.

It made me realize I had never seen the 2000 sequel to the original Richard Roundtree trilogy, SHAFT.

The effortlessly cool Samuel L. Jackson stars as Roundtree's nephew John Shaft, a NYC police detective who walks away from his badge in his quest for justice.

A young Christian Bale is vile as rich yuppie Walter Wade Jr, son of a mega-wealthy real estate tycoon. After junior viciously attacks and kills a man in a racially repulsive assault, Shaft makes it his personal quest to bring him to justice.

Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense, Knives Out) is a waitress and lone eye witness to the attack. Deep in hiding, both Shaft and Wade Jr are trying to get to her.

Dan Hedeya (Blood Simple) and Vanessa Williams are a lot of fun and offer intrigue as fellow detectives, but its Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale, Westworld) who steals the show with an outlandish, hilarious and flawless performance as Peoples Hernandez, a drug kingpin in the middle of the action.

Peoples deserves his own spinoff!

Jackson is perfection as the new Shaft generation and his scenes with Richard Roundtree as his legendary uncle will leave you with a grin on your face.

Issac Hayes classic music is woven throughout by composer David Arnold (Tomorrow Never Dies) and Shaft fans will spot Gordon Parks, director of the 1971 original in a bar scene.

A disappointment at the box office, this was the last Shaft film until 2019's update with yet another generation of young detectives, which I loved. It's one of the sleepers of the past year, but bombed badly, likely dooming the classic crime thriller character for decades to come.

For me, this 2000 entry stands up well in the series, with 1972's "Shaft's Big Score" and the original at the top of the heap.

Jackson, Wright and Bale drive this entry to an enjoyable, action packed B.


Shaft's Big Score

1972's SHAFTS BIG SCORE is the sequel to SHAFT which kicked off the 70's blaxploitation film genre. Director Gordon Parks and writer Ernest Tidyman (The French Connection) return for the sequel and it is, by far, the best of the Shaft trilogy. The New York city of the early 70's seems as far away as the 1920's at this point, but the film really captures that gritty era in the big apple.

Richard Roundtree is great as detective John Shaft, and he will keep you interested until the final 20 minutes arrives, which is one BIG and exciting chase sequence. Director Gordon Parks has also written one of the best 1970's film soundtracks for the film, culminating in a 20 minute music cue called "Symphony for Shafted Souls" for the long chase climax. Everything you need to know about 70's action film music is in that symphony. Great stuff. Fun, DATED, exciting, as 1970's as a disco ball, SHAFT'S BIG SCORE scores a B for me.

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Unknown member
Oct 26, 2023

He commanded attention! What a beautiful man inside & our!

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Unknown member
Oct 26, 2023
Replying to

Agreed! Class act and broke major action star ground in '71. "Hotter than Bond, Cooler than Bullitt"!


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