This comes so far after the original "Shaft" in 1971 you might hesitate to call it a sequel. It's more like a revival, or a nostalgic time trip. Except that it's all been updated nicely, with a feeling of the original sassiness intact. And the Isaac Hayes music is central, and terrific, making this a legit Shaft movie.
Samuel Jackson plays the role perfectly, not pulling back and not overdoing it. The idea of a black cop in a city that still has racial biases, in this case emphasizing the rise of Latino drug lords as part of the fracturing, is mainstreamed here. It's not as daring or shocking to see this pushed forward, but it's still effective. Shaft, the main character (who never seems to have a first name), is powerful, smart, and unwilling to be pushed around by authority. Even if it means losing his job (or quitting--Shaft is always the one making his own choices).
The director, John Singleton, is not especially well positioned for a mainstream sequel with high production values (his one famous effort to date is "Boyz n the Hood"), but he pulls it off. This is a snappy, smart, well made movie. It's oddly mainstream, playing with clichés too easily, working with bad guy good guy tenets adding only the minor twist of racial or ethnic alliances, though even these we've seen before. You can't help but see "Jackie Brown" from three years earlier as a far more interesting, well made, and timely movie. That one was by Quentin Tarantino, which changes the score a bit, but it starred Jackson, again, and makes the most of him.
You might say Singleton makes the most of Jackson here, too, but a better way to look at it is that Jackson makes the most of Singleton. He takes over the movie, and it's a good thing. He has talent and presence in a classic Hollywood acting way. The cast around him is really strong, which is nice. (There is a cameo by the original director of the 1971 "Shaft," Gordon Parks, in a bar scene, if you are lucky--a white haired older black man at the table.)
The other terrific actor is Jeffrey Wright, playing a drug king with enough realism and panache to make it real and glitzy both. The third main character is the future Batman, Christian Bale, who is a great bad guy and who you actually miss in the last parts of the movie.
What really brings this down to earth, and too much so, is the story, which is boilerplate stuff. There is machismo, and guns, and a play of one bad guy against another, and one cop against another. You might say, hey, isn't there room for more cop and crime movies that work in familiar circles? Yes. But I again refer to "Jackie Brown" as a way to see out of this box.
This new "Shaft" is good stuff--it's well acted, tightly edited, directed with professional canny (noticeable in lots of different ways), and brings up racial clichés in a fun and even important way. It descends by the last third into overused chase and shoot scenes between cops and robbers. But...it's better than its reputation, for sure. I say see it. Enjoy the attitudes. The acting. And the homage to the original.
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