(director/writer: John Singleton; screenwriters: Ernest Tidyman (novel)/Richard Price/Shane Salerno; cinematographer: Donald E. Thorin; editors: John Bloom/Antonia Van Drimmelen; cast: Samuel L. Jackson (John Shaft), Vanessa Williams (Detective Carmen Vasquez), Jeffrey Wright (Peoples Hernandez), Christian Bale (Walter Wade Jr.), Busta Rhymes (Rasaan), Dan Hedaya (Jack Roselli), Toni Collette (Diane Palmieri), Richard Roundtree (Uncle John Shaft), Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Jimmy Groves), Daniel Von Bergen (Lieutenant Kearney), Mekhi Phifer (Trey, black murder victim), Lee Tergesen (Luger); Runtime: 99; Paramount Pictures; 2000)
“The film has its two eyes firmly set on the box office…”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
We know we are watching a Shaft movie without even looking up at the screen, as we tune into the wah-wah funk sound of Isaac Hayes’ exponential title theme and get with its raucous sounds that echo throughout this action-packed mainstream movie from the opening credits to the film’s end. John Singleton’s (“Boyz N the Hood“) “Shaft” is a blaxploitation sequel film to the core, made in earnest for the urban New Millennium and to satisfy its fans who have followed all the other Shaft films. Why do we need another “Shaft,” is easy to explain: the public demands it, meaning there’s big box office potential.
Samuel L. Jackson brings the right frame of mind playing NYC Detective John Shaft; he is funny, violent, and able to stay in character, staring hard at the camera, hamming it up with an easy smile or taking on a drug lord in a choreographed showdown of violence. Jackson’s the Man who takes charge of this film, because he’s the Man. His humor is of the vulgar kind. He tells a barmaid: “It’s my duty to please the booty.” His violence is exemplified with him coming out of a witnesses’ private house with both guns blazing, and with dead bodies strewn all over the neighborhood.
The original Shaft, Richard Roundtree, has a small part as Shaft’s uncle, trying to get his nephew to become a partner in his private eye service and give up on the racist police force.
The film has its two eyes firmly set on the box office, its mind in the gutter, and a serviceable script for all its mayhem and profanity to have an urban gritty feel to it. The film makes only a few halfhearted pretenses of being anything more than a mindless entertainment spectacle, and those efforts don’t help but hinder. The film would have been better served if it went completely either for mindless violence or played it completely like a Scorsese art-form gangster film. Mixing in both styles only jarred the rhythm of the film.
“Shaft” has the usual props for a black exploitation film: fancy cars, gold chains, sexy chicks, drugs, guns, crooked cops, and a slick anti-establishment hero. It also had the audience where I saw the film, charged-up for the action scenes and hooting with wild delight at the snide digs. It also had the right Shaft for the part; Samuel L. Jackson gives the role some weight and puts an edge on his vigilante characterization.
The action begins when Shaft gets called to a racially charged murder outside a trendy Manhattan nightspot, and he arrests a bigoted, rich, white young man, Walter Wade Jr. (Bale). But the rich kid posts bail and skips for two years, living in Switzerland. The barmaid, Diane (Colleti), with her frightened doe-like eyes in the headlights for the entire film also disappears, and she is the only witness to the crime.
Walter returns after two years and Shaft arrests him again. The judge this time sets a high bail, but one which Walter easily meets. In the tombs for a day, waiting to post bail, he befriends a violent Dominican drug dealer, Peoples (Wright). In a scene that was both incredulous and awesome in how chilling it was — Walter goes to Peoples’ Dominican Washington Heights neighborhood, where he sticks out like a sore white thumb. He offers Peoples $40,000 in his late mother’s jewelry to locate and kill the witness. Peoples’ has other ideas than the money, he wants to get his drugs pushed into Walter’s white upscale neighborhood as he is looking for upward mobility and a white contact there. Of course, one can ask why a racist like Walter would go to Peoples for the contract murder, unless he’s really insane and that the “American Psycho” smile Bale still sports from his last starring role just hasn’t worn off yet. It is more than likely, especially with the big money he was willing to pay, that he could have gotten white Mafia professionals to take care of his business.
The meeting of great minds takes place: of the hateful WASP Walter and the stereotyped lowlife Peoples, who speaks a stream of constant trash-talk and with an enunciation that is so fantastically off kilter that it makes it fun to laugh at him. The comedy provided by Wright’s speech pattern is comparable to a Cisco Kid movie dialogue, if Cisco was on speed. Jeffrey Wright is the perfect villain to balance out the super-serious Shaft; he steals scenes from his arch enemy Shaft by a twist of his neck or by wearing a greasy shirt. After all, it’s not that hard to do, since Samuel L. Jackson is just playing one of those typical macho roles often seen in action films.
Shaft throws his badge at the judge who gave Walter an attainable bail and quits the police force to become a vigilante, dedicating his life to hunting down the crime’s key witness and getting Walter convicted. His vigilante role is very serious. While Peoples just wants to become a bigger drug kingpin…realizing he’s limited in this lifetime by his ethnic quirks.
Shaft gets unexpected help in his vigilante stance from the attractive narcotics squad detective, Carman Vasquez (Williams), who watches his back on her own time. He will need her help, as things get twisted and two crooked cops (Hedaya and Tergesen) who work for Peoples tail him as he goes after Diane. The film resorts to violent chases, bloody shootouts, a final duel between Wright and Jackson, and a twisted ending to make its final statement about what Singleton thinks of the justice system.
Shaft tells it like it is, he’s: “too black for the uniform, too blue for the brothers.” He’s angry at racism, and he’s angry at urban crime and corruption. The Shaft films have changed with the times: the 1970s demanded “Black Pride,” for Shaft to be a sex machine, and for him to be one cool dude. This Shaft retains the loud dress code, his super-macho attitude, and the political incorrectness of his character; but he is more politically motivated, more set on violence as his calling card, and even more cynical that the system can’t work. It is stylishly directed and acted, and achieves moderate success in telling its story. It even offers some passing comments about a host of recent NYC police corruption cases and it can’t resist a passing aside at the current mayor as Jackson, in the middle of an assault on the drug dealers, says: “It’s Giuliani time.”This film was made for Samuel L. Jackson; just by his presence, it makes this film a more perplexing one than the other Shafts. The only thing that is missing, is any love interest or any sex scenes; what takes the place of sex, is pure violence. You tell me if that’s an improvement!
REVIEWED ON 6/24/2000 GRADE: C