What did it mean in 1971 for a black action hero to live life by his own swaggering terms and stick it to whitey at every turn? A lot more than it does in the year 2000, which is one reason why John Singleton's updated Shaft feels a bit empty beneath its attitude and novelty value.
At its sensationalized best, Shaft plays like a sharp-edged, high-energy cartoon, with a leading man who could play the title role in his sleep. Samuel L. Jackson is an actor with range to match his rage, but he's made his name playing modern, menacing variations on the "Blaxploitation" superman (particularly in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown). Now he plays the second coming and nephew of the black superhero, Richard Roundtree's famous private dick (who, of course, was a lady's man to all the chicks). You could argue that Mr. Jackson has spent a large chunk of his career preparing for this very role, even if he didn't know it at the time.
The hard part is transferring a formula that had its time into a time that has its own formulas. Mr. Singleton, a bit pedantic even in his better films (Boyz N The Hood, Rosewood), may be both the best and the worst candidate to recapture the "Get Whitey!" ethos of the original Shaft and its countless knock-offs. Perhaps the most militant filmmaker working in the Hollywood system, he brings passion and fire to the racial politics of Shaft. He also whacks us upside the head with a villain (Christian Bale) so racist that he's handed a Klan hood in one of the first scenes.
Mr. Singleton, Mr. Jackson, producer Scott Rudin and co-screenwriter Richard Price were reportedly at odds throughout the making of Shaft, and you can see the conflict spill all over the screen. This John Shaft is a career cop who resigns from the force when Mr. Bale's murderous baddy beats The System. Once on his own, he amasses a body count Arnold Schwarzenegger might be proud of. His targets include Mr. Bale, quickly becoming a master at playing the angry American rich kid (see American Psycho); Dominican drug lord Peoples Hernandez (a broad, but potent, performance by Jeffrey Wright); and a pair of corrupt cops.
The story becomes a mess about halfway through, or about the time that it regresses into an orgy of flippant violence and loosely stitched twists. Known for playing one side against the other, this Shaft can only watch as his script fakes itself out down the stretch. The villains battle for screen time, with neither getting enough to gel with the script. And what happened to Shaft's prowess with the chicks? Aside from the occasional flirtation, this is one neutered lady's man. If Paramount or Mr. Rudin were afraid to turn Mr. Jackson into a sexual creature, then shame on them.
At least he gets to crack a few heads and exude a charisma that few in Hollywood can touch. Well-connected bad guy: "Do you know who my father is?" Unfazed Shaft: "No. Do you?" He's leaner and meaner than Mr. Roundtree's original, even as his surroundings melt into the stuff of rote action movies.
Even when the new Shaft grows tiresome, it's fun to note how and where it borrows from the progeny of the original. Blaxploitation had a huge impact on today's hip-hop culture, so it seems fitting to have Busta Rhymes play Shaft's partner in crime. Filmic references range from the Dirty Harry renegade cop series - the first of which arrived in theaters just months after the original Shaft - to New Jack City, one of several modern films that arguably would never have been made without Shaft, Superfly and the like.
Then we have reflections of how the outside world has changed. Where Mr. Roundtree's Shaft was bold and novel as he basked in his era's surge of black power, Mr. Jackson struts through a post-hip-hop, post-Diallo world of police violence, commodified rebellion and political correctness. Despite ample effort, the potential of such cultural shifts is only hinted at.
Where Gordon Parks' Shaft had a sense of integrity and purpose behind the strut, this one seems content to extol vigilantism in the name of equality. In this sense, it has much in common with the exploitation films that piggybacked the original Shaft - a ribald grouping that nonetheless pales next to those few films that transcended the Blaxploitation genre. Can you dig it?