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Bullets and Booty over Broadway: Shaft Movie Review by Spyder Darling

 
 Shaft
Samuel L. Jackson as Shaft
Almost thirty years after strutting onto the big screen to the sounds of Isaac Hayes' Oscar-winning theme song, detective John Shaft is still a rebel soul man, too black for the officers in blue, and too blue for the neighborhood crew.

Fortunately, director John Singleton's take on Shaft is a modern-day continuation of Gordon Parks' 1971 blax-ploitation classic, rather than an attempt at a remake. To try to reproduce the chemistry of a cult masterpiece is simply begging for disaster. Just ask the makers of Psycho, Godzilla or Lost in Space.

This year's Shaft is a pistol-packing, high-impact action flick with the always-slick Samuel L. Jackson as "the cat that won't cop out, when there's danger all about." Jackson's character is an engaging extension of the cooler-than-Kool-100s private detective played by Richard Roundtree in the first movie version of Ernest Tidyman's novel. Bet ya didn't know the 1971 movie, its two sequels, a television series and the new Shaft were all based on a single book, huh? Oh, and for you trivia enthusiasts, the "L" in Samuel L. Jackson stands for Leroy.

Meanwhile, back in the front row, Richard Roundtree's cameo appearances as Uncle John Shaft are some of the new picture's most amusing moments and brought howls of respect from preview audiences, especially when Uncle John leaves a party in honor of his nephew John with a naughty Nubian lady on each arm. Not to worry, Samuel does quite well for himself in Shaft's funniest moment when he assures an amorous barmaid that "It's my duty to please that booty." Obviously, this isn't Fantasia 2000 we're talking about here.

Jackson's Shaft isn't quite as complicated a man as Hayes' theme song would have you believe. He's a tough-talking police detective of the Dirty Harry variety, who gets things done his way, which unfortunately for the bad guys, is usually the hard way. The very hard way. Samuel's character has little respect for the authority of simple-minded superiors who don't understand the subtleties of street justice. Aspiring gang-bangers are beaten into saying Shaft's name through broken teeth while police cruisers, recognizing Shaft's interrogation techniques, roll by looking the other way.

Shaft
Vanessa Williams as Carmen Vasquez
 
The movie also attempts to deal with the complexities of being a black officer on a predominantly white police force. But mostly, the film is all about Shaft breaking faces, pistol whipping perpetrators and using any means necessary to locate and protect Diane Palmieri, the sole eyewitness to a racially motivated nightclub murder. Toni Colette rather unpleasantly portrays Palmieri, with much frowning and furrowing of her eyebrows. We're supposed to feel sorry for Diane's pitiable plight, but it'd be much easier if we didn't have to look at her.

The first Shaft wasn't nearly as violent or polished as this year's model. But the original movie was probably produced for less than the cost of the Giorgio Armani wardrobe worn by Samuel and his comely co-star Vanessa Williams – who is surprisingly believable in her role as Carmen Vasquez, Detective Shaft's partner in fighting crime. If Shaft II doesn't come to pass, Carmen could easily get reassigned to NYPD Blue without too much red tape.

English actor Christian Bale, most recently seen as the surreal serial killer Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, once again dons a Yankee accent to play Walter Wade Jr., the ruthless and racist rich kid around whom Shaft's actions revolve. Platinum props to director John Singleton for extracting an even more villainous and plausible performance out of Bale than in American Psycho, which was more hilarious than horrific. Singleton also co-wrote the film's screenplay with Richard Price and Shane Salerno, and all deserve much credit for the plot's surprising number of spins and grins.

Wade Jr., for example, is outraged that his widowed father would give his mother's necklace to his new child bride. He sneaks into his mother's bedroom and steals the remaining jewelry, seemingly to protect the heirlooms from his new gold-digging step mother. It then turns out Wade Jr. only wanted the family jewels so he could pay Peoples Hernandez, a neighborhood drug lord, played with proper moronic menace by Jeffrey Wright, to kill Diane Palmieri thereby leaving no witnesses to the murder Wade Jr. committed several years earlier. There are other twists to the story line that will grab your attention with extreme prejudice, so pay attention, damn it. And watch out for the victim's mother, she's not as helpless an old lady as you think.

The movie overcomes a shaky start, taking too long for Shaft to get enraged enough at the justice system to quit the police force. The beginning courtroom scene ends with Shaft throwing his badge past the judge's ear with such velocity that his shield sticks unbelievably, yet symbolically, in the oak-paneled wall of justice's "sacred" hall. Singleton wastes no time then getting his picture rocketing back on schedule with the speed of a runaway subway train. Luckily, it wraps up with the requisite wallop just before you start to think too hard about the unlikely details of what's happening here. Many critics will denounce the movie's relentless violence, but there's little glory to be gathered in the twitching, gurgling deaths depicted. Equal argument can be made that Shaft's carnage simply signifies the finality and futility of racial hatred and moral corruption. That's my theory anyway and I'm sticking to it. It also makes for a damned entertaining couple hours of classic tough-guy movie making. Can ya dig it?

June 2000

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