1 item from 2000
Samuel L. Jackson strides through "Shaft" oozing all of the juice a righteous man can muster. Decked out in Armani double-breasted blazers and black leather jackets, Jackson's Shaft is five steps ahead of everyone else, can read people's minds, takes crap from nobody and never misses when he fires a handgun. He defines big-city cool. He is also the only reason to catch this otherwise routine exercise in street mayhem and outdated urban stereotypes.
As a remake or sequel or renewal -- call it what you will -- of the early-1970s cinema icon, "Shaft" is positioned to pull in sizable crossover audiences both young and old. While some may be put off by its advocacy of vigilante justice and its negative racial images, the unfortunate fact is that many will probably laugh at the snide racial put-downs and dig the gratuitous bloodshed. Director John Singleton and his producers are to be congratulated for hiring the only actor likely to pull this character off convincingly; otherwise, one can only wish they might experience a wince of embarrassment.
"Shaft" (1971) and "Shaft's Big Score!" (1972) -- both starring Richard Roundtree, written by Ernest Tidyman and directed by Gordon Parks Jr. -- were two of the best blaxploitation films of that era. In Roundtree's Shaft, black youths found an action figure they could respond to, a symbol of black pride who could manipulate the white man's system to his own advantage. Indeed, his very name was an action verb.
But this new film, written by Singleton, Shane Salerno and Richard Price, makes the mistake of continuing the 1970s attitudes into the New York of 2000. Much has changed in two decades. Racism has gone underground and emerged in more subtle forms than the writers are willing to acknowledge. The world is actually much more complex and insidious now. But the writers prefer to keep things simple: All whites are racist or corrupt or both; most blacks are shady outlaws; Latinos are drug dealers; and shooting someone has no consequences.
Jackson's John Shaft is actually the nephew to Roundtree's John Shaft, who turns up occasionally here as Jackson's mentor and confidant. The younger Shaft is an NYPD detective who, like his uncle, is close to the streets and knows how to play its players.
The plot is every bit as rudimentary as the early Shaft movies. A super-rich white racist, played by Christian Bale -- just back from his tour of duty as an "American Psycho" -- wantonly murders a black man. Shaft arrests him, but his wealthy daddy posts bail and he flees the country. Two years later, the fugitive secretly returns, Shaft again arrests him, and a white judge once again frees him on bail, the latter plot twist an unconscionable denial of any sort of judicial reality by the filmmakers.
Shaft abruptly resigns from the force and takes matters into his own hands, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake for which he bears no apparent responsibility. Meanwhile, in an even more implausible plot twist, Bale seeks out a Dominican drug dealer (Jeffrey Wright) and hires him to track down and eliminate the only witness to his crime, a waitress played by Toni Collette. Even the drug lord has to admit the assignment is not part of his usual criminal repertoire.
As a matter of course, Shaft must work against his old department's corrupt cops (Dan Hedaya and Ruben Santiago-Hudson) and an indifferent management style. Backing him up are only one female cop (Vanessa Williams, who, surprisingly, is not a Shaft love interest) and a right-hand man (an amusing, lively performance by rapper Busta Rhymes).
The characterizations of all these personalities are hopelessly banal with nothing percolating beneath the surfaces. Essentially, everyone acts as straight man to Jackson's Shaft, and Jackson is up to the challenge. With Isaac Hayes' signature tune pacing his long, measured strides and a don't-mess-with-me glare in his eyes, Jackson reinvigorates a potential franchise character for Paramount.
Giving Shaft's mean streets their sheen are cameraman Donald E. Thorin's brooding images, fast-paced editing by John Bloom and Antonia Van Drimmelen and a crazy-quilt old/new production design from Patrizia von Brandenstein.
Scott Rudin/New Deal
Producers: Scott Rudin, John Singleton
Director: John Singleton
Writers: Richard Price, John Singleton, Shane Salerno
Story by: John Singleton, Shane Salerno
Based on the novel by: Ernest Tidyman
Executive producers: Adam Schroeder, Paul Hall, Steve Nicolaides
Director of photography: Donald E. Thorin
Production designer: Patrizia von Brandenstein
Music: David Arnold, Isaac Hayes
Co-producer: Eric Steel
Costume designer: Ruth Carter
Editors: John Bloom, Antonia Van Drimmelen
John Shaft: Samuel L. Jackson
Carmen Vasquez: Vanessa Williams
Peoples Hernandez: Jeffrey Wright
Walter Wade Jr.: Christian Bale
Rasaan: Busta Rhymes
Jack Roselli: Dan Hedaya
Diane Palmieri: Toni Collette
(Uncle) John Shaft: Richard Roundtree
Jimmy Groves: Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Running time -- 98 minutes
MPAA rating: R
1 item from 2000
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