13 January 2001 | Buddy-51
Samuel L. Jackson seems to be having the time of his movie acting life portraying the title character in `Shaft,' John Singleton's take on the groundbreaking classic that, on its release in 1971, served as the blueprint for all the `blaxploitation' films that filled theatres throughout the early and mid 1970's. Unfortunately, the concept of a rogue black cop, defying the rules and doing things his own way, is not as fresh as it was back in the time of the original film, so this new version of `Shaft' has less to recommend it. Still, it is an efficient police procedural, filled with crowd-pleasing moments of adrenalin-pumping melodrama, hissable villains and a wisecracking, kickass hero who seems virtually indestructible just the way we like our heroes to be in a movie like this.
Singleton pays affectionate homage to the original film in many ways. Jackson actually plays the nephew of the original Shaft and, indeed, Richard Roundtree makes a cameo appearance early on in the film as Jackson's seasoned mentor. Singleton wisely uses the original Isaac Hayes recording of the hit song as background for the film's opening credit sequence and backs up many of the action scenes with an impressive instrumental interpretation as well.
The story offers little that is new for this particular genre whose films often rise or fall based on the quality of the foils against whom the hero must ultimately contend. Luckily, the filmmakers are blessed with not just one but two impressive villains Jeffrey Wright as Peoples Hernandez, a tough talking thug who wants to expand out of the little neighborhood kingdom he has established into the big time of upper class drug dealing, and Christian Bale as Walter Wade, Jr., the racist, spoiled-brat son of a New York City magnate whose hate crime killing of an innocent black man sets the plot in motion and serves as fodder for Shaft's personal vendetta. Bale proves definitively that the quality of subtle, soul-cringing evil he brought to his role in `American Psycho' was no fluke and that he can be as effective in a big budget extravaganza like this one as he is in a smaller scale, far more quirky work like `Psycho.' Vanessa Williams, on the other hand, who plays Shaft's partner and who is almost unrecognizable buried under a dark beret, fails to distinguish herself either in her role or in her performance.
Then we have Mr. Jackson himself. Here is a man who slides so effortlessly into the role that, despite the absurdity and incredibility of much that is going on around him, we never question the film's veracity for a moment. Whether tossing off wisecracks, shooting at unarmed criminals, pounding defenseless suspects into insensibility or consoling distraught witnesses, Shaft remains forever a hero, acting out the impulses we in the audience feel but are never able to fully act upon in our daily lives. Thus, this new `Shaft' works best as simpleminded good vs. evil melodrama and even the most sophisticated movie watcher can use a bit of that once in a while.