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Shaft   B-

Paramount Pictures

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: R
Director: John Singleton
Writers: Richard Price, John Singleton, Shane Salerno
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Vanessa Williams, Christian Bale, Jeffrey Wright, Busta Rhymes, Dan Hedeya, Toni Collette.

Review by Rob Vaux

Yes, he's the cat that won't cop out, but is he trying to do too much? John Singleton's remake of the seminal blaxploitation flick Shaft has a lot going for it -- a great star, a cool theme, the indefinable joy that comes from righteous ass-kicking -- but there's a lot of cultural baggage underneath that name. Cultural throwback...summer action flick...meditation on race in America...Shaft tries to be all these things and more. Even with a pro like Samuel L. Jackson in the title role, it has a hard time keeping the balls in the air.

We first meet John Shaft -- the nephew of Richard Roundtree's original private dick -- as a super bad-ass detective for the NYPD, nailing the snide son of a real estate magnate (Christian Bale, still oily from his turn in American Psycho) for a hate crime in an upscale bar. But thanks to his dad's connections and Shaft's unfortunate bout of anger, Bale's Walter Wade Jr. is soon out on bail and fleeing the country for Switzerland. Shaft doesn't like it, but he's still a cop and has other fish to fry. Two years later, after busting big time drug dealer Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright, sporting the most incomprehensible accent since Benicio Del Toro in The Usual Suspects), he learns that Wade is slinking back into town and nails the little puke the minute he steps off the plane. Unfortunately for him, Wade and Hernandez hook up in the holding cell and form a tentative alliance to take him down. With the horrors of our liberal justice system, it's only a matter of time before they're back on the street and ready to take Shaft down. Luckily, they didn't hear the Isaac Hayes theme song over the opening credits, or they'd know just how bad their mutual nemesis can be.

The film works often enough to keep things from collapsing, but unfortunately, it also tends to bite off more than it can chew. Singleton has a unique ability to portray American race relations with unflinching honesty and truth. He never coddles the audience with fairy tale scenarios nor does he pander to any one particular demographic. His best films explore the murky edges of racism: the complicated interactions that create hate and are often so hard to identify. It's no trick to show a Klansman getting blown away. Singleton shines a light on the conditions that create Klansmen and shows us why bigotry in America isn't so easily exorcised.

In that light, a big summer production like Shaft causes him some real difficulties. At times, it plays like any other blockbuster, with car chases, gunfights, and Jackson stomping all those who stand against him. Other times it wants to be a serious social drama, meditating on the corruption of the justice system and the angry despair of inner city neighborhoods. The two sides don't fit very well: you can't watch Shaft effortlessly gun down dozens of bad guys and then try to seriously ruminate on societal inequities. When you add vigilantism to the mix (borrowed from earlier blaxploitation pics), it makes for some very confused themes. The film needed to pick one and run with it rather than trying to take it all in one gulp.

Jackson, however, almost single-handedly overcomes all that. He's a one-man wrecking crew of twitching eyeballs and flaring nostrils, prowling through New York like a living thunderstorm. No one else on the planet can sell a line like "it is my duty to please that booty," and even with Roundtree popping up in a cameo, Jackson thoroughly owns this turf. Strong supporting performances abound as well, from Bale's American Psycho curtain call to Toni Collette's brief turn as a waitress on the run. In the end they're enough to save Shaft from itself and drive the murky plot firmly towards its conclusion.

As a filmmaker, Singleton could have done wonders with this material: more than anything else Shaft reeks of lost potential. Thankfully, he didn't have to carry the load alone and his star has enough power to close the deal. You'll probably see better films than Shaft this summer, but Jackson makes sure that this one doesn't crash land. Who's the man, indeed.

Review published 06.23.2000.

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