Directed by John Singleton
Review by Matt Heffernan
In 1971, Gordon Parks' Shaft was released. An immediate success, it spawned a whole new film genre -- what is often referred to as "blaxploitation". Through the rest of the decade many films were made with a predominantly black cast, featuring plenty of violence and criminal activity. To borrow a term from Timecode: black noir. The genre somehow fell out of fashion in the 1980s, but these films kept their prominence in the American consciousness, especially that seminal work. Now, acclaimed filmmaker John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood, Rosewood) has made a new Shaft for the 21st century.
Samuel L. Jackson plays John Shaft, the nephew of his namesake from the previous films (Richard Roundtree, who makes a few brief appearances). As a detective in the NYPD, he arrives at the scene of a fatal beating of a black man by Walter Williams (Christian Bale), the son of a wealthy realtor. They arrest him, but his $100,000 bail is easily paid, and he subsequently runs off to Switzerland.
Shaft manages to catch him when he tries to sneak back into the country, but when Williams is again released (this time on a $1,000,000 bail), Shaft decides right there to leave the force and nail Williams on his own. Well, not completely alone, since he still gets the help of Carmen (Vanessa L. Williams), a woman from his old squad, not to mention guidance from Uncle John. The key to taking Williams down for good is finding a waitress named Diane (Toni Collette) and getting her to testify.
As you can see, this is not really a remake of the original film, but an attempt to jumpstart the franchise (which also included 1972's Shaft's Big Score and 1973's Shaft in Africa). Jackson makes a believable action hero, using equal parts wit and toughness to express his character. His image is certainly an improvement over Roundtree's. With a real budget, Shaft can now be dressed in high fashion, and the look of the film itself is much slicker. This is a top-notch Hollywood production all the way, tightly paced, and full of rousing action.
That's not to say that this film is any better than the original, or Singleton's earlier work. The low-budget atmosphere of the 1970s films was somewhat endearing, and Shaft fit so well with its time. If you're looking for Singleton to add anything more than a chronological update, you will be quite disappointed. His passion and youthful angst are not found here. Instead, he is just having fun paying homage to the films he grew up with.
Interestingly, the term "blaxploitation" may still apply to this film. The original screenplay was written by Singleton and Shane Salerno, but underwent significant re-writes by Richard Price. Jackson reportedly objected to speaking "that white man's words," accusing Price of not being able to properly write for black characters. You see, he's a complicated man, and no one understands him but his woman. John Shaft, that is.
For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Video Pick of the Week
Guide to Star Ratings
Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan