Starring: Samuel L Jackson, Christian Bale, Vanessa L. Williams, Jeffrey Wright, Busta Rhymes

John Singleton

Writing credits: Richard Price, John Singleton, Shane Salerno
Distributor: Paramount Pictures * 98 minutes
Rated: R for strong violence and language
  (USA 2000)

There's a glossy veneer that seems to coat every scene in SHAFT, the new John Singleton reimagination of the 1970's blaxploitation classic. It's not just that the current version has a (much) larger budget, or that it has a 21st-century social context in which to operate; there's a different state of mind permeating the current incarnation of Harlem's smoothest, most debonaire detective. Shaft, once a trash-talkin' bad mutha (hush yo mouth), has been overhauled and remade as an innuendo-laden action hero for the new generation.

Unlike James Bond, who deftly made the transition from a politically-incorrect past to a modern (if amusingly backwards-thinking) antihero, Singleton's vision of SHAFT removes most of the particulars that made the original character so unique. Gone are the scores of women being seduced. Gone is the questionable private investigator career (he's a cop now, at least part-time). Gone, in fact, is Harlem and the black community Shaft was a part of. Shaft's multicultural world now has Latino sidekicks played by African-American actors. (On the hero side, there's Vanessa L. Williams as Carmen Velasquez; for the villains, there's Jeffrey Wright playing "Peoples" Hernandez.) Additionally, it seems that white people have conquered Shaft's universe in the last 25 years: his bosses, his co-workers, his crooked friends (Dan Hedaya), his damsel in distress (Toni Collette), and his archenemy (Christian Bale) are white. The only African-Americans Shaft knows, it seems, are criminal informants of a surprising number and his faithful driver, Rasaan (Busta Rhymes).

Critical carping aside, what this means is that SHAFT is no longer a cultural vanguard, but a mass-market action flick. Producer Scott Rudin and director Singleton clearly want their new film to reach across cultures, playing to both Harlem and hoosiers. In doing so, however, they've reduced one of the most memorable cinematic icons in history to just another generic, run-of-the-mill hero. Truthfully, this updated Shaft Lite could be tweaked in small ways and played by Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis, or Jet Li.

Thankfully, however, the role is in the capable hands of Samuel L. Jackson, who wears Shaft's Armani leather coat and badass sunglasses like he was born in them. Jackson is an arresting presence, able to take mediocre material (like the recent RULES OF ENGAGEMENT) and make it mesmerizing. A police officer of questionable moral character, Jackson's Shaft is haunted by a racially-motivated murder perpetrated by rich boy Wade (Bale). After being arrested by Shaft, Wade jumped bail and fled to Switzerland...but not before a witness to the crime, Diane Palmieri (Collette), escaped into hiding. As both Shaft and Wade begin a manhunt to track Diane down, Wade partners up with a petty drug dealer, Peoples Hernandez (Wright), who has aspirations of his have Wade's rich friends as his drug clients.

Admittedly, the plot is lackluster, even by modern action film standards. The superior performances, however, more than compensate for the absence of suspense. Jeffrey Wright, best known as the star of the art film BASQUIAT and from his Tony Award-winning performances in Angels In America on Broadway, is a revelation as the bitter, funny, and provocative Peoples Hernandez. What could have been a stock performance is utterly fascinating in his hands. The first turns on a dime when Peoples transforms from a ruthless hood to a social climber with dreams of a better life, fiercely loyal to his family and violently emotional when they are threatened. Peoples is the American Dream turned on its head, and Wright is talented enough to highlight every contradiction.

Christian Bale, playing a variation on Patrick Bateman, is a charmingly believable wealthy racist, although one wishes that Singleton had crafted a character that had more resonance. In Bale's first scene, he makes scurrilous racist remarks, shining like a neon sign over his head. It's clear that we, the audience, should hate this guy at first sight. In reality, racism is a complex beast, and a glance at the more nuanced treatments of the subject in AMERICAN HISTORY X, DO THE RIGHT THING, or even Singleton's own BOYZ IN THE HOOD wouldn't have hurt the screenwriters.

Academy Award Nominee Toni Collette and Vanessa L. Williams seem slightly dazed, only going through the motions -- both seem completely surprised to be in a big action movie. On a brighter note, however, a star may be born in the thoroughly enjoyable Busta Rhymes, who singlehandedly contributes much of the comic relief in SHAFT. With his winning smile glowing a mile wide, Rhymes is quite a charmer; it seems clear that there may be a film career in his future which could match the success of his musical achievements. Also successful is Richard Roundtree, the original Shaft, who makes brief appearances as Jackson's P.I. uncle.

Samuel L. Jackson is clearly the man to play the new, morphed version of Shaft; it's a possibility that he may have found a new film franchise for himself, quite deserved and long overdue. While fans may lament that Shaft is a pale version of Jackson's similar character in PULP FICTION, it is nevertheless a commanding performance.

With the many evident missteps made by director/screenwriter Singleton, the marginal success the film garners is due to Jackson. Hopefully, if there is a SHAFT 2, we'll get to see a little less Urban Rambo, and a lot more of the black private dick who's a hit with all the chicks. You know who I'm talking about.


- Gabriel Shanks

Review text copyright © 2000 Gabriel Shanks and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.


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