“Still the Man,” trumpet the ads for “Shaft,” but the new John Shaft, and the spirited remake itself, are a wholly different, cooler package than the 1971 original. Helmer John Singleton affectionately embraces the blaxploitation genre tradition with which the name Shaft is synonymous, while applying New Millennium speed and sleekness as well as contempo political themes. Result is the kind of smart, entertaining product that studios yearn for in the summer season. Eschewing his deeper thesping proclivities for the total, wall-to-wall star turn, Samuel L. Jackson instantly takes the mantle from Mr. Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree, and runs with it on pure style and charisma. Pic’s crafty combo of retro elements and updated action will not only pack ’em in here and abroad, but will ensure yet a new “Shaft” franchise.
Though the early-’70s series, inspired by Ernest Tidyman’s novel about a studly, black-is-beautiful gumshoe, is lovingly remembered by fans, it now suffers in comparison to such funkier, wittier vehicles as “Coffy” and proves a natural for not just a remake but a reinvention. While honoring the blaxploiter code, the pic creates something more compelling through a synergy of star power and sinewy storytelling.
Latter is the project’s ace in the hole, undoubtedly thanks in no small measure to screenwriter-author Richard Price, who has long demonstrated a compelling approach to tales of urban crime and corruption. Singleton’s turn to pure popcorn fare after suffering a rough track record with such personal work as “Rosewood” and “Higher Learning” results in his best filmmaking to date, technically as slick as they come but substantial and relevant at the core.
Cue that we’re in reliable hands is the wah-wah funk sound of Isaac Hayes’ emblematic title theme, symbolically quite true to the original and not some overeager, overly synthed re-do. Story’s no-nonsense attitude delivers immediately as Shaft (on the NYPD force and the nephew of the older Shaft, still played here in choice spots by Roundtree) investigates the brutal beating of a young black man (Mekhi Phifer) outside a Gotham bar and quickly concludes that the culprit is smug Walter Wade Jr. (Christian Bale), son of a major real estate developer.
Palming key evidence from Wade indicating that barkeep Diane (Toni Collette) witnessed the attack, Shaft sees Diane escape from the scene and then watches the victim die on the stretcher. Matters go from bad to worse as Wade gets off on bail and taunts Shaft from his new Swiss exile.
Story developments clip along at a rather astonishing rate, even as two years pass and embittered Shaft is in the narcotics division doing standard drug raids. One leads to a colorful encounter with this movie year’s best bad guy to date, Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright), a small-time drug lord and member of the Latino “Five Families” Mafia who’s nailed for the equivalent of spitting on the sidewalk. Around the same time, Shaft cleverly grabs Wade as he re-enters the U.S.
The motley pair of baddies — one an ultra-preppy blue blood, the other an ambitious Puerto Rican street tough — bond through a series of maneuvers spiked by a mix of mutual fear and respect, leading to Wade’s paying Peoples to hunt down and kill Diane.
When Wade is allowed to post bond once more, Shaft goes over the edge (hurling his NYPD badge within inches of the judge, in one of pic’s few bows to over-the-top f/x). Quitting the force, he informs Uncle John that Wade’s “ass is mine.” Action ratchets up in impressive fashion as Shaft draws out information in a rough style that would have made even the younger Roundtree blink and recruits streetwise aid from the rather foolish but helpful Rasaan (Busta Rhymes), all-business narco-cop Carmen (Vanessa Williams) and — more unlikely — racist-but-friendly cop Luger (Lee Tergesen).
Singleton stages what is unquestionably his coup de maitre with a wild sequence set up by corrupt cops Roselli (Dan Hedaya) and Groves (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), who are out to get Shaft. It culminates in a street gunfight approaching the chaos of war (but expertly and coherently depicted by Singleton).
Pic perpetually ups the stakes but remembers that those stakes are always human, with all major characters in deeper and deeper crisis, especially Collette’s affecting Diane, who holds a secret she finally reveals to Shaft. This is exemplary action screenwriting that keeps characters at the forefront, so that the final confrontations and shocker twist carry the kind of emotional pull that used to be a Hollywood hallmark.
The pic also resonates with reminders of current headlines about U.S. urban cop abuse and corruption, with points effectively underplayed rather than underlined. Throughout, though, there are enough times-out for pure black coolness (listen, for instance, to Jackson telling a sexy lady, “It is my duty to satisfy the booty”) to remind aud of pic’s true roots.
Few stars of late have displayed more sheer joy in a mainstream project than Jackson does here. Perhaps it’s because this marks a pause from a spate of heavier roles, perhaps because this is the clear link with his turns in Quentin Tarantino’s own blaxploiter-inspired pics (“Pulp Fiction,” “Jackie Brown”) or maybe it’s that he gets to dress up and look like dynamite in leather. It must be said that Jackson leaves Roundtree’s Shaft persona in the dust, not only as a dynamic hero and menacing presence, but on the more intangible levels of charisma and humor. This is, simply, a man at the top of his game.
Such a star might put the supporting cast in the shadows, but as in Clint Eastwood’s best actioners, there’s terrific thesping aplenty, starting with Wright’s unforgettable, hilariously dark Peoples. Wright takes the right approach — namely, that this is his movie, not Jackson’s, and inserts a sneaky, subversive and unpredictable tone into what could have been a more conventional good-guy/bad-guy conflict. Bale does a mere variation on his “American Psycho” role, but delivers the evil goods on cue. Collette introduces a level of wrenching vulnerability just when pic needs it the most, and Rhymes hems in what could have been pure scene-stealing nonsense.
Tech departments fire on-target, led by fine widescreen lensing by Donald E. Thorin and a score (with shared credits for David Arnold and Hayes) balancing classic ’70s funk and a John Barry-esque sound. Even minor details, such as terrific graphic style applied to transition wipes, are given tender, loving care.