Shaft! Any questions?

USA , 2000. Rated R. 99 minutes.

Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Vanessa Williams, Jeffrey Wright, Christian Bale, Toni Collette, Busta Rhymes, Richard Roundtree, Dan Hedaya, Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Writers: John Singleton (story), Shane Salerno (screenplay & story), Richard Price (screenplay & story)
Music: David Arnold
Cinematographer: Donald E. Thorin
Producers: Scott Rudin
Director: John Singleton, Richard Price


Grade: D- Review by Glenn Sheridan

Who is the man, who would risk his neck for his brother man? Shaft! Yes, the man whose DNA makes him walk in the middle of oncoming traffic is back... and this time he's got an Armani wardrobe and a much bigger paycheck. Back in the day the movie posters screamed "Hotter than Bond–Cooler than Bullitt"; perhaps today's tagline could be "Hotter than Bond–Cooler than... Bulworth"?

Isaac Hayes' original theme song played like the heartbeat of the original 1971 Shaft movie, and the transplant to this newer film's opening and closing credits lends instant credibility and ambience by association. Director John Singleton basically succeeds in paying homage to the Gordon Parks directed original–a forgettable film that nevertheless spawned two sequels and a TV series, bailed out struggling MGM Pictures, made a star of Richard Roundtree, and kickstarted the whole Blaxploitation genre. Those early 70's b-films, made mainly by white producers for black audiences, were spoofed in the 1988 film I'm Gonna Get You Sucka, and had titles like Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold and The Mack. They may seem negligible and dated to the CGI-soaked eyeballs of today's movie audiences, but without them, it's doubtful films like Do The Right Thing, Menace II Society or even Pulp Fiction would ever have made it to the screen. Plus, those films have the best soundtracks around. You dig?

Shaft begins with New York City Police Detective John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson–Rules of Engagement, The Negotiator) arriving at the scene of a brutal attack on a young black man outside a ritzy bar. With the help of a waitress (Toni Collette) who furtively identifies the attacker as richboy Walter Wade, Jr. (Christian BaleAmerican Psycho), Shaft soon has his man in custody. The victim dies; the terrified waitress (and sole witness) vanishes, and Wade's moneyed status allows him to jump bail and flee the country. Two years later, with the aid of his streetwise cohort Rasaan (Busta Rhymes), Shaft hauls Wade back into custody as he sneaks back into the country. In the meantime, our hero has been doing his best to put the squeeze on Dominican druglord "Peoples" Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright) by throwing him in jail on a bogus charge following an unsuccessful drug raid. One unjust thing leads to another, and Wade is out on bail once more, free to play "Get That Waitress!" (a variation on the old Hollywood theme of "Silence That Witness!") with the help of his new Dominican acquaintance.Samuel Jackson in Shaft It's enough to make a good cop quit the force in disgust and handle things his own way. You can probably guess what comes next, even if you haven't seen the trailers.

The excellent dual villain performances of Bale and Wright make for a smarter-than-average plot formula, since their respective characters each have their own personal reasons for wanting Shaft out of commission. Jackson's turn as recalcitrant cop John Shaft–a stunningly, self-assured screen presence–rounds out this tripartite struggle. Jeffrey Wright (a Tony award winner for Angels in America) crafts a character compelling enough in Peoples to match Shaft in swagger and Wade, Jr. in cunning. At times he actually seems to slow the rest of the movie down to match his own laconic pace. It's quite a thing to behold. His accent is troublesome, however; it's often so thick it's a distraction. Nevertheless, this is a small price to pay for a compelling villain these days, considering the feeble competition for your multiplex dollar.

Early on, the film shifts focus from Shaft railing powerlessly against a corrupt system that protects people like Wade to his more sure-footed dealings with career criminals like Peoples. In the game of cops and robbers, each side usually knows where to find the other. The Wade character doesn't play by the usual rules, however, so partway through the movie you may get the feeling that you've lost something, finally mumbling to yourself, "Hey, wasn't there another bad guy in this film?" As Wade, Bale is vile and completely unrepentant, leaping out from the screen like some evil, human exclamation mark. But then he just disappears for awhile; eventually showing up for an unconvincing onscreen reunion with Peoples that only reminds the audience of his wasted potential as a truly memorable movie villain. There are other obvious continuity gaps in the film, probably because this Shaft is just not as grounded in reality as the original, but it can afford to coast along on Jackson's charm. Singleton has done reality flicks (Rosewood, Boyz in the Hood), and hasn't been particularly well rewarded financially, so it's possible he's just flexing some new muscles here.

Roundtree returns in his original role of John Shaft, to play uncle and mentor to the new John Shaft. Uncle John is a little older and wiser, but he is no less cynical and no less attractive to the ladies, judging by the two on his arms as he leaves the Lennox Lounge. Look closely and you might also see Gordon Parks in that bar, seated at a table. This is where the film really shows its sparkin the little touches. Hardly anyone knows who Parks is, much less what he looks like. But by putting the first black director of a studio feature in his picture, Singleton shows he knows what he's doing and why.

The rest of the cast is exploited for maximum dramatic and/or comedic effect. Rhymes is especially noteworthy. (How does Singleton get these performances out of rappers?) However, Vanessa Williams needs much more screen time in order to round out her supporting character. As his I've-got-your-back fellow cop, she seems the closest thing to a constant female presence in Shaft's life (remember the song "He's a complicated man, but no one understands him but his woman"). The motivations of some of the other characters are little difficult to fathom, especially the dirty cops (Dan Hedaya and Ruben Santiago-Hudson). And this generation of Shaft seems a little too teflon-coated. Hardly anyone lays a finger on him throughout the whole movie, so I guess all that Jedi mind training over at The Phantom Menace really paid off.

There is a lot of funny dialogue in Shaft, but you don't often get much time to enjoy the humour before something else grabs your attention. When you hear Shaft utter a line like, "It's Giuliani time!" you know you are in for some serious people and property damage. Singleton and co-screenwriters Shane Salerno and Richard Price (Clockers) have crafted something entertaining and rare herea fun movie with soul. Check out the scene of a man plummeting from a tall building immediately following a brief scene featuring the two crooked cops walking out of a buildingone asks the other "How did the [stock] market do today?" The whole thing lasts maybe 12 seconds. Subtle and inspired!

The Big Picture

Despite, or perhaps even because of, the tension on set, the film's main strength is Jackson himself. Jackson raised the ire of producer Scott Rudin (The Firm, Sleepy Hollow) by refusing to use some of Price's re-written dialogue, declaring it to be too white. Rudin responded by deleting all but two of Shaft's sexual encounters (including the one in the opening credits that isn't even Jackson). So there is almost no sex in the film at all. The story doesn't really suffer because of it, but it is a noticeable flaw. Another is the scene of Shaft's vicious pistol-whipping of a young, small-time drug pusher. Despite trying for a macabre Tarantino-esque comic set-up, the show-all approach is too dark for its own good. The punishment, meant to deter him from ruining the life of a 12-year-old boy, is likely the only way the punk will get the message. But the scene goes way beyond what is necessary to show that "the ends justifies the means" ideology runs in the Shaft family. Not so subtle.

Jackson is perfect for this part. There is an underlying playfulness to his screen personality that forms part of his gruff exterior. What sets Jackson apart from other African-American stars like Will Smith or Eddie Murphy is the kind of humour his characters emanate (Jimmy in Hard Eight or Jules in Pulp Fiction for instance). It's not cute or self-deprecating; his characters are funny in a "laugh, or I'll break this bottle over your head" kind of way. Even considering their depth as performers, it's doubtful that Denzel Washington or a post-Matrix Laurence Fishburne could have sustained the right blend of likeable badass and avenging angel of Harlem that Jackson manages to achieve in the role.

As he accepted his golden popcorn bucket at the 2000 MTV Movie Awards, George Lucasthe King of Popcornpredicted Jackson would return to claim next year's prize for his work in Shaft (or did he mean the next Star Wars movie?) Either way, this is what a Hollywood summer blockbuster should be; smart, witty, franchise fodder that still manages to deal with issues of race, corruption of justice and human foibles without becoming heavy-handed.

By the way, the B+ rating stands for Bad Mothaf... Shut ya mouth! Any questions?

Review © June 2000 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
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