Shaft (John Singleton, 2000)
[originally posted 19Jun2000]
In this movie, the fifty-two-year-old Samuel L. Jackson takes on his hardest role yet: playing the nephew of a man who was supposedly born only seven years before he was. Still, the versatile Jackson manages to handle the job pretty well, I’d say.
That aside, this is about as much a kick back and enjoy the ride film as you’re likely to see this year, and rightfully earns a notch- no matter what happens in the latter half of the year, on the ten-best list.
Singleton decided not to remake the original Tidyman novel/screenplay, but instead drafted him to create a whole new plot, and a whole new Shaft, the nephew of the original played by Richard Roundtree (who, it should also be noted, was born in 1942, so he really WAS twenty-nine in 1971; and having seen the original movie as many times I have, I still can’t believe he was that young). This Shaft is a homicide detective who lands a case that looks suspiciously like a race-related killing. We’re handed the victim, the killer, and the witness within the first ten minutes; then the victim dies, the killer is granted bail (and skips to Europe), and the witness disappears. And we got us an action film.
Jackson, his trusty sidekick Rasaan (Busta Rhymes), and a nasty organized-crime type named Peoples Hernandez (a fantastic portrayal by veteran character actor Jeffrey Wright) one-liner their way through this script beautifully. Bullets fly, people get smacked, everyone wants a piece of the killer (slimily done by Christian Bale) for their own reasons, and the audience never once gets a chance to catch its breath. Which is just as it should be.
Many of the things about the new Shaft, as compared to the old, are things that the critics are knocking Singleton for, and there may be some credence to what they say, but I’m taking a different interpretation. The original Shaft was a highly-sexualized being who seemed to want to solve cases as something to do in between trips to the sack with every woman he met; Jackson’s character has one seemingly out-of-place sexual encounter, and then the sexual aspect of his character is shelved. Where Roundtree’s character, upon meeting an out-and-out racist, rose to the bait and came back with double, Jackson only has time for one racist, and then only after the guy does him a favor (and the mutual respect between the two, by the end of that scene, is obvious). There are other little niggling things, but those are the two main ones. And most critics see this as a betrayal of the original character; I see it as the ways in which Tidyman and Singleton wanted to show that these are two different characters with two different agendas that are reactions to the societies around them. And, ultimately, that’s what both the 1971 and 2000 models of Shaft are all about; holding a man up to a society and allowing him to reflect it back upon itself.
But who cares about the philosophy? It’s time to let the bullets fly. And no one does that better than John Shaft—either John Shaft. *** 1/2