Directed by John Singleton
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Christian Bale, Jeffrey Wright, Vanessa Williams, Toni Collette, Dan Hedaya, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Busta Rhymes, Richard Roundtree, Josef Sommer, Lynne Thigpen, Lee Tergesen, Daniel Von Bargen, Mekhi Phifer.
2000 98 minutes
Rated: (for profanity and violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, June 17, 2000.
Without having seen Richard Roundtree in 1971's blaxploitation hit, "Shaft," this updated version, starring Samuel L. Jackson and directed by John Singleton (1991's "Boyz N the Hood"), can safely stand on its own as a wildly diverting, if one-note, action-comedy-drama that moves at such a lickety-split pace, it's easy to get completely caught up in the happenings on screen, while they are happening. Once they are over, the film ultimately loses much of its novelty, but as an "in-the-moment" popcorn entertainment, it works wonders.
Following the fatal beating of a young black man outside a New York City nightclub, and the evidence pointing towards Walter Wade, Jr. (Christian Bale), a wealthy bigot, NYPD investigator John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson), one of the biggest badasses to ever hit the silver screen, hops on the case. He is quickly discharged, however, after giving Wade a taste of his own medicine (i.e. punching him twice in the face for the wrong Shaft knows for certain he did). Due to the one potential witness in the case, Diane Palmieri (Toni Collette), disappearing, Wade is unjustifiably set a bale of only $1-million, and before everyone knows it, he has skipped the country, relocating to Switzerland.
Flash forward two years, John Shaft is now on the narcotics unit of the police force, with a fellow cop partner in Carmen (Vanessa Williams). When Shaft learns that Wade is making his grand return to the U.S., he makes sure to be there for the plane arrival, and this time, he is certain that he can put him behind bars for good. But first, Shaft must find Diane and persuade her to testify in court, and dodge the increasing number of people in his life who are working for Wade, including corrupt cops (Dan Hedaya, Ruben Santiago-Hudson) and the wisecracking, hotshot Dominican druglord, Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright).
Like the title character, "Shaft" wastes no time in drawing the viewer into its derivative, yet engrossing, storyline. Nothing at all would matter, though, if Shaft were not portrayed with the correct measures of sleek coolness, attitude, and an at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek tone. In Samuel L. Jackson, director Singleton has found the perfect actor, and in "Shaft," the clearly talented Jackson has found what is possibly his most outstanding role, to date. The acting abilities of Jackson have never been doubted, but he also has never jumped so vibrantly off the screen as he does here, playing the character he was born to play. In short, he is funny, likable, oh-so-kewl, and projects a distinct joy of performing.
Supporting Jackson is a top-notch cast, not all of whom are used to their highest potential, but who are fine, all the same. Christian Bale, in a role that is virtually identical to the one he played in "American Psycho," is fabulous and appropriately chilling, turning his one-dimensional bad guy into one of the most memorable characters, and most impressive acting turns, in the entire film. Jeffrey Wright, as Peoples, is the secondary villain of the piece, and he is so good it is difficult to believe he is the same man who starred in 1996's "Basquiat." Fresh off her Academy Award nomination for "The Sixth Sense," Toni Collette does a respectable job as Diane Palmieri, but has little to do. And Vanessa Williams, as Carmen, is, in essence, the straight man to Shaft's flashier persona, and equips herself with a good-natured blandness.
With Shaft's groovy token theme song, by Isaac Hayes, prominently appearing at several points throughout, as far as can be told, "Shaft" successfully recaptures the feel of the 1971 original, but with a bare minimum of sexual innuendo. The film is action-lite, the type of high-spirited motion picture that knows it isn't great art, but thrives on this fact. Director Singleton, along with coscreenwriters Richard Price and Shane Salerno, and star Jackson, have all put their heads and hearts together to create a movie that will delight anyone looking for a big, silly action movie that seemingly succeeds without really trying, and doesn't add up to a whole lot in the long run.
Special Note: Producer Jerry Bruckheimer should be especially distressed to learn that the car chases within this film are infinitely more thrilling and fun than in his recent "Gone in 60 Seconds," a complete misfire that is supposed to be all about chase sequences, but never gets it right.
©2000 by Dustin Putman