Genre: Action and Crime Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 39 min.
Release Date: June 16th, 2000 MPAA Rating: R
Director: John Singleton Actors: Samuel L. Jackson, Vanessa Williams, Jeffrey Wright, Christian Bale, Dan Hedaya, Toni Collette, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Richard Roundtree
saac Hayes’ award-winning theme music opens this pseudo-remake, while the use of snazzy editing, nudity, and purplish graphics give it a decidedly updated feel. The Afro has disappeared in favor of Jackson’s signature smooth pate, yet his no-nonsense attitude and tough-talking lingo is entirely recognizable. “I can dig it.”
When New York detective John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) comes upon a fresh crime scene, he swiftly begins his investigation, pausing only to look hard-nosed. Despite a lack of cooperating witnesses, it’s evident that Walter Wade Junior’s (Christian Bale) unprovoked racism started the ordeal, which ended with victim Trey (Mekhi Phifer) dying from head injuries sustained during an ensuing brawl. And since Walter is the son of a hotshot real estate developer, the homicide case isn’t going to go smoothly. At least Shaft gets to plant a couple of solid right hooks into the smug racist’s face.
Two years later, Shaft’s crime-fighting routines haven’t simmered down at all. In fact, they’ve only gotten more intense. The hard-boiled detective can’t seem to avoid bombastic drug busts, chasing suspects up flights of stairs and through apartment complexes, infuriating high-ranking gang members, and verbally sparring with insensitive coworkers. Fellow agents, including Carmen Vasquez (Vanessa Williams), Jimmy Groves (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), Luger (Lee Tergesen), and Jack Roselli (Dan Hedaya), are used to the heavy-hitting antics. Shaft’s problems are about to get worse, however, when Wade Junior makes a reappearance, becomes the target for rearrest, and grows acquainted to ruthless thug Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright).
“It’s my duty to please that booty.” The jazzy tunes are back, as are the snappy one-liners and unshakeable demeanor. But the grittiness that made the original film a blaxploitation – and straightforward crime drama – classic has all but vanished in place of a blaring polish (in cinematography, costumes, and sets) and unconvincing casting. Wright and Bale simply don’t sell their parts; neither one is believable as an imposing villain. And Wade Junior in particular doesn’t make any sense, since he doesn’t have access to the extreme wealth (or political connections) that would make him a typical, powerful, gangland antagonist. The authenticity has virtually disappeared; this modernized take looks and feels like a formulaic Hollywood blockbuster, devoid of the street-smart realism that made the 1971 film so refreshing.
Also missing is the complexity of the original; here, the plot doesn’t twist and turn as before – it just dwells on a bland, longstanding revenge notion. Plus, Shaft doesn’t do any real sleuthing. While there’s time for action and chaos, the detective work is sloppy, resulting in plenty of collateral damage and destruction; it’s all brawn and no brains. Richard Roundtree makes a cameo as Uncle J, but his appearance will only remind audiences of how the best pieces of his iteration have been removed. Additionally, the race relations complications are largely nonexistent (save for Wade being a textbook bigot), and Shaft’s above-the-law behavior seems like an excuse for him not to intelligently dodge legal hurdles; here, he can do blatantly illegal things without fear of repercussions.
– Mike Massie