Saturday, July 29, 2000

Shaft / ** (2000)

Of the endless chain of flicks that came out of cinema’s “blaxploitation” era in the early 1970s, none have quite gone down as revered and well-respected as “Shaft” from 1971. Slick, hip and stylistic, with broad strokes of energy around the edges (particularly in the unforgettable title them from Isaac Hayes), Gordon Parks’s film about a cop who played by no rules but his own was an early example of how action movies could be given an array of freedom without technology or loads of dough clogging production values. It was hardly a classic, especially given its rather inane narrative, but acceptable all the same; not many movies, after all, came out of the blaxploitation craze that were not mulled down by some kind of displeasing point of view (not that I’m one to speak wholeheartedly about the genre’s scope given my limited wisdom on it).

Brief knowledge in mind regardless, I went to see John Singleton’s “modernization” of “Shaft” with high hopes, trusting that the talented director behind solid pictures like “Poetic Justice” and “Boyz In The Hood” could recreate the atmosphere of the original picture, and that his star, Samuel L. Jackson, would honor and preserve the suave and stylish depiction of John Shaft, which was grounded almost 30 years before by actor Richard Roundtree (who also makes an appearance this time around). It goes without saying, though, that Jackson’s Shaft is merely the nephew of the original (making this more of a sequel than a remake), and as is the case with most relatives of important people in society, living up to a past example can be difficult. Singleton’s “Shaft,” alas does nothing to undermine that notion, and though it has a sense of direction and a likable ensemble, the story is thoroughly uninteresting and cares more about formula than anything else.

The script wastes no time in making its hero the center of attention, bringing him in on a case in which pampered rich kid Walter Wade (Christian Bale, who apparently has some bloodlust left over in his screen arsenal after “American Psycho”) bludgeons a black man to death as a result of humiliation induced by the victim. The only witness to this crime—Diane Palmieri (Toni Collette), a waitress—is threatened, and though Shaft throws a couple of punches his way, the department is forced to let Wade out on bail, and the madman flees the country. Of course, the minute he steps back in, Shaft is the first man there to greet him. With his hatred for the rebel cop in full gear, Wade strikes up a friendship in jail with Spanish drug lord Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright), another one of Shaft’s captures, who is hell-bent on revenge. Their alliance gets off the ground as Shaft begins a full-scale search for the witness to Wade’s crime so that she can testify against him, and hopefully, put him behind bars for good.

All of these plot developments are, at best, mildly watchable, if only for the fearsome energy brought on by the excellent cast. Samuel L. Jackson, who occupies the screen with the same gusto as Roundtree did, does a remarkable job in sustaining the sly wit of his 70s-style character, spurting out lines of dialogue that Quentin Tarrantino would use in a picture, and acting on impulse of the plot’s developments very precisely. Toni Collette shares similar success as the witness to Wade’s crime, as does Jeffrey Wright with Peoples Hernandez (even if his accent is a tad over-dramatized). And though Wade is the single most loathsome character I’ve seen in many a movie, Christian Bale gives him the color needed to survive the shuffling around of the story.

But then again, energy this good makes us sorry the actors are not using it on something better. What made the original picture rather admirable was its combination of a distinctive style, solid story, energetic characters and its sense of rebellion and freedom. Singleton’s new version is nowhere near that effective, pulverized by the fact that its approach lacks the same potency as the original, then actually claims to be a “tribute” to its relative. The appropriate tribute would have been to re-release the first film to theaters instead.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Action (US); 2000; Rated R; 99 Minutes

Samuel L. Jackson: John Shaft
Vanessa Williams: Carmen
Jeffrey Wright: Peoples Hernandez
Christian Bale: Walter Wade, Jr.
Busta Rhymes: Rasaan
Dan Hedaya: Detective Jack Roselli
Toni Collette: Diane Palmieri

Produced by Paul Hall, Steve Nicolaides, Mark Roybal, Scott Rudin, Adam Schroeder, John Singleton and Eric Steel; Directed by John Singleton; Screenwritten by Richard Price, John Singleton and Shane Salerno; based on the novel “Shaft” by Ernest Tidyman

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