Friday June 16, 2000
"Do you know my name?" Samuel L. Jackson's detective John Shaft asks people every chance he gets. "What's my name?" he insists, or "Remember me?" As if anyone could forget.
Though it came out nearly 30 years ago, the original "Shaft"--directed by Gordon Parks, with Richard Roundtree as the New York private eye who was "Hotter Than Bond, Cooler Than Bullitt"--has never slipped from memory. Streetwise and sexually active, Shaft had an easy and confident manner that helped make him a success at the box office (there were even a pair of sequels and a TV series) as well as a new kind of African American hero.
Things have changed in Manhattan since 1971, however, and even Times Square, where the old Shaft hung out, is much too gentrified for a detective's office. The current version, directed by John Singleton and written by Richard Price, Shane Salerno and Singleton, tries awfully hard but with little success to create a "Shaft" for this day and age. The classic Isaac Hayes theme music has been kept (how could it not be?), but much else has changed, including a seriously diminished sex life for our hero.
The main thing the new "Shaft" gets right is casting for the title role. The always excellent Jackson has the presence of a force of nature, and his John Shaft, tough, to quote Raymond Chandler, the way other people think they're tough, is a galvanic presence. It's too bad the rest of the film doesn't hold your attention the way he does.
A detective on the NYPD when the film opens and described as the nephew of the original (Roundtree has a substantial cameo, and even Parks makes an appearance), the new-model Shaft--slick, powerful, angry--comes off more like RoboCop in a black leather Armani coat than his predecessor did.
While the first Shaft was a person before he became an icon, Jackson has upped the voltage and taken the role way past mythic. An avenging angel who makes his own law on and off the force, this Shaft is so indestructible you half-expect to encounter laser beams instead of eyes when he discards his sunglasses. When he resigns from the force, he hurls his badge across a courtroom like a stiletto; when he says, "Don't move," you better listen; when he fires a bullet, a man dies. That's right, Shaft never misses.
A plot to challenge a hero like this is hard to imagine, but "Shaft" doesn't even break a sweat in that direction. With few exceptions, the characters the detective encounters, whether good or evil, are standard-issue, neither interesting nor involving, and the same is true for the story line and the direction.
Filmmaker Singleton has had an erratic career since his "Boyz N the Hood" debut ("Poetic Justice," "Higher Learning" "Rosewood"), and the jumbled work on view here is not going to help his reputation. The problem is not that Singleton has chosen to do genre material, it's that he's done it (compared, for instance, to what Steven Soderbergh did with "Out of Sight") with so little inspiration.
The film begins with the murder of a young black man, beaten to death by a racist swine named Walter Wade Jr. who seems to think he can get away with it because his father, Big Walter Wade, is a major real estate developer. As played by Christian Bale, in a role that could be called "American Psycho, too," Walter is a wall-to-wall smirk, a rotten rich kid who thinks he can beat the system. You can imagine how that irritates Shaft.
The only witness to the crime, a pasty-faced waitress named Diane Palmieri (Toni Collette) who looks like she's survived a 24-hour "Battlefield Earth" marathon, promptly disappears. And, aided by typical rich white guy machinations, Walter evades the law for a time as well.
While waiting for that case to jell, Shaft teams up with fellow officer Carmen Vasquez (Vanessa Williams) and ends up tangling with Peoples Hernandez, a Dominican drug lord so named, no kidding, because he always takes care of his peoples. As played with eccentric brio by Jeffrey Wright, unrecognizable to those who remember him as the artist of the title in "Basquiat," Peoples goes over the top at times, but he's still the only character aside from Shaft that is any fun to watch.
Eventually, rich punk Walter resurfaces and, unlikely as it sounds, hooks up with the unorthodox Peoples in a kind of anti-Shaft jihad. Having two villains instead of one makes things more confusing and less focused without managing to give Shaft a worthyrival.
With its hero pingponging on and off the police force (and being more effectively violent in the off position), "Shaft" ends up with a strong and unsavory streak of vigilantism. Fed up with the system, Shaft and company reason that if you know who the bad guys are, it's more reliable to take care of them yourself. It's "Death Wish" all over again, and not any more fun the second time around.
Shaft, 2000. R, for strong violence and language. A Scott Rudin/New Deal production, released by Paramount. Director John Singleton. Producers Scott Rudin, John Singleton. Executive producers Adam Schroeder, Paul Hall, Steve Nicolaides. Screenplay Richard Price and John Singleton & Shane Salerno. Story by John Singleton & Shane Salerno, based on the novel by Ernest Tidyman and the motion picture from the Turner Entertainment Co. library. Cinematographer Donald E. Thorin. Editor John Bloom. Costumes Ruth Carter. Music David Arnold and Isaac Hayes. Production design Patrizia Von Brandenstein. Supervising art director Dennis Bradford. Set decorator George DeTitta Jr. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. Samuel L. Jackson as John Shaft. Vanessa Williams as Carmen Vasquez. Jeffrey Wright as Peoples Hernandez. Christian Bale as Walter Wade Jr.. Busta Rhymes as Rasaan. Dan Hedaya as Jack Roselli.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times