Private detective John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) receives a telephone call at two o'clock in the morning and being asleep in bed with his latest conquest, opts to leave the handset off the hook, but the plaintive speaking on the line moves him to answer. It is Cal (Robert Kya-Hill), who happens to be the brother of Arna (Rosalind Miles), the woman beside him, and he is requesting Shaft head over to his office at this late hour for reasons he is not willing to go over on the phone. Cal also requests he warn his sister should he see her, unaware she and Shaft have a thing going on, but the detective leaves her behind when he gets into his car and drives to the office in question - however, just as he is pulling up outside, a huge explosion rips through the building.
Shaft, the first instalment in this original trilogy, was such a hit that it didn't take long for MGM to order a sequel, especially since it was so economical to produce, not really having any big names to eat up the profits. Roundtree was a model hoping to break into the movies and earned the role of a lifetime for his lead debut, but funnily enough it was the director Gordon Parks who was the real celebrity in the wider world, a renowned photographer before he started his cinematic career. Both men were brought back, along with some supporting players, and Parks sought to put his stamp on the also-returning Ernest Tidyman's work as writer by handling the music duties as well as the direction, a brave move when Isaac Hayes' original score was so indelible in the audience's minds.
So what he did was ask Hayes to create one song for the soundtrack, which was called Type Thang, surely the vaguest, "will this do?" title for a tune ever, while composing a series of funk riffs to accompany the action, though Parks was plainly trying to emulate the style of Hayes, which was fair until you got to the lyrics, rather embarrassing attempts at street lingo that Hayes had such an adept manner with. You can't underestimate how much a distracting score can do damage to a movie, but here there were other problems as well, mostly with the pacing as too often we felt as if we were eavesdropping on Shaft as he conducted low level conversations with the other characters, only broken up by occasional bursts of activity as the action occurred.
To be fair, there was more action here than in the first, yet for all its flaws there was a particular tone of grit and cool the participants conveyed in Shaft that was replaced by a sluggish mood only Roundtree appeared engaged with. Even the dialogue, in spite of also having Tidyman at the typewriter, was far from snappy, with our hero indulging in what sounded like playground taunts and saddled with such passages as making a point of asking a white cop to get him a black coffee - because he's a black man! He couldn't be more black! Hence the black coffee! Geddit? Talking of getting it, Shaft had a reputation of being a sex machine to all the chicks to uphold, so we got Parks turning curiously arty for his big sex scene, even psychedelic with its use of mirrors and dissolves.
The lucky lady, aside from Miles, was the girlfriend of Johnny Kelly (Wally Taylor), one Rita (Kathy Imrie) who was the second coolest character in the movie, for reasons which become apparent later on. Kelly slaps her around, so we need Shaft to demonstrate how to treat her right, especially as her other half is the one after the stash of cash Cal hid away before his untimely demise. This places the detective in the position between two rival gangs, which could have played out as a Blaxploitation Yojimbo, not a bad idea, but never picked up enough of a head of steam, so more sauntered along when it should have been speeding up towards the finish line. It could have been a lot brisker than it was, yet with the running time edging towards the two hour mark no matter the diversions, including a montage of Shaft getting beaten up edited together with naked women in body paint strutting their stuff at a nightclub, bizarrely, it never got out of the lower gears until the action-packed finale with Rita at the wheel of a car chase and Shaft squaring off against a helicopter. It was a hit, mind you.