A movie like Shaft is a tough call. Do you praise it for offering bold talent in the service of a routine urban thriller, or do you criticize it for the same reason? Everyone involved in Shaft is beyond Shaft, from the stars (Samuel L. Jackson, Jeffrey Wright, Christian Bale, Toni Collette) to the director (John Singleton) to the initial screenwriter (Richard Price, whose script was retooled by Singleton and Shane Salerno). At heart, Shaft is just a retro revenge thriller, with its conflicts made storybook-simple (the good guys are righteous; the bad guys are really bad).
Yet the plot becomes almost incidental, and so do the standard shoot-outs and car chases. The real appeal of Shaft is its acting teamwork; no ’70s blaxploitation movie ever had such an entertaining cast. For instance, Christian Bale, as the prerequisite skunky rich white boy whose racist venom sets the plot in motion, approaches his character as a cross between American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman and a spoiled frat boy. His character, Walter Wade, develops an unlikely partnership with Latino drug kingpin Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright), and the two diametrically opposed actors Bale and Wright are so unaccountably right together that you forget whatever else is going on in the movie.
Samuel L. Jackson may or may not break into the Hollywood A-list after this movie, the first major Hollywood production he has been allowed to carry, but if he doesn’t, it won’t be for lack of trying. His John Shaft (the nephew of the original Shaft — Richard Roundtree, who appears here) owes just about everything to Jackson’s towering presence, his effortless charisma and unquestionable authority. Roundtree, playing Shaft way back in 1971, didn’t quite seem tough enough for the role; we felt that people backed down from him only because the script demanded it. With Jackson, we understand why people back down.
The only people who don’t fear or respect Shaft are the aforementioned Wade and Peoples, both of whom have made Shaft’s “asses to kick” list. Peoples, a half-pint thug with plans to move his drugs in a more upscale market, goes into cahoots with Wade to find and kill a witness (Toni Collette) to Wade’s hate crime. The plot thickens, with corrupt cops (including the underused Dan Hedaya) getting in on the action, and you can hear the cynical zing of Richard Price’s voice in a lot of the underhanded dealings and street talk. I bet it was Price, for example, who thought up the insensitive cop (Lee Tergesen of Oz) who’s given to racist jokes but also turns out to be helpful to Shaft at a key point in his scheme against Peoples.
John Singleton’s direction is smooth and competent, if not quite inspired; he’s certainly an improvement on the original Shaft‘s director, Gordon Parks, whose work was clunky and amateurish (the film looks as if they used the first take of every scene). The 1971 Shaft had a vivid supporting role, though — Moses Gunn as Bumpy, the suave gangster who hired Shaft to find his daughter. Shaft (and the movie) had little but contempt for Bumpy, who sold drugs and gambling to black people, but Bumpy didn’t care; he let it all roll off. This movie’s Bumpy is Peoples, and Jeffrey Wright comes through with an equally suave performance studded with menace. There’s an amazing moment in which a grief-stricken Peoples advances on Shaft while stabbing himself (non-fatally) with his own ice-pick; it’s as if to say, “I’m so bad-ass I can do this to myself — imagine what I’m gonna do to you.”
This Shaft is probably the best possible Shaft, given its inherent limitations. The original Shaft hasn’t aged well at all; back in 1971, it was received eagerly by a black audience starving to see themselves in the same sort of action thriller they’d been watching white folks in for decades. Shaft was a shrewd commercial concoction packaged mainly by whites (Shaft was created by novelist Ernest Tidyman, a white guy) and accepted by black viewers as a symbol of empowerment. Today, though, we’ve seen so many dozens of variations on Shaft that bringing him back, even in name only, just seems like a nostalgia trip. Shaft would look better if we hadn’t seen the infinitely cooler Ghost Dog earlier this year; it would look better if we hadn’t seen any of John Singleton’s previous films. But if a new Shaft had to be made, we can at least be grateful that it wound up in the hands of people who know what they’re doing. On a summer-movie level, Shaft is a worthy diversion. But only on that level.