May 2024

Shaft (2000)

DIRECTOR: John Singleton


Samuel L. Jackson, Vanessa Williams, Christian Bale, Jeffrey Wright, Toni Collette, Richard Roundtree, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Dan Hedaya, Busta Rhymes, Daniel von Bargen, Pat Hingle, Josef Sommer, Philip Bosco, Mekhi Phifer


Shaft originally hit the screens in 1971, at the height of the ‘Blaxploitation’ era, with Richard Roundtree starring as ‘the black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks’. Almost thirty years later, John Shaft made a return to the screen- sort of.

This time, the original Shaft (Richard Roundtree) is still around, but it’s his nephew (Samuel L. Jackson) who takes the spotlight, and he’s got his hands full. First off, he pays a visit to an upscale nightclub where a rich, racist yuppie named Walter Wade (Christian Bale) has just bashed in the head of a young black man (Mekhi Phifer). The murder was witnessed by waitress Diane Palmieri (Toni Collette), but when Wade’s let out on bail— thanks to the influence of all-powerful Dad (Philip Bosco)—he promptly skips the country and Diane disappears in fear. Two years later, Shaft is involved in a conflict with a local drug dealer, Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright), when Wade finally returns home. When Wade is again arrested—and is again released on bail—Shaft throws his badge into the courtroom wall like a ninja star (is this possible? probably not, but it looks cool) and sets out to get Wade his own way. Wade approaches Hernandez with an offer: he wants Diane tracked down and eliminated before Shaft can find her and convince her to testify.

Samuel L. Jackson is perfectly cast as Shaft. With the clothes, the sunglasses, the goatee that looks like something a comic book artist came up with, and the attitude, no one exudes ‘cool’ better than Jackson, and he carries the movie through its weaker moments through sheer force of presence. Christian Bale turns the smug emitters on full blast as the spoiled punk Walter Wade (one can imagine him as a character in a Dirty Harry movie), but the show is stolen by Jeffrey Wright, a chameleonic character actor who seems capable of playing just about anything, here donning an impenetrable Dominicn accent and swaggering through the movie in a manic performance that stays just on this side of over-the-top.  He’s funny at times, but not so much that we can’t take him seriously when he stabs a man through the hand with an ice-pick. Vanessa Williams projects some toughness as Shaft’s partner, who doesn’t go down the predictable route of becoming his love interest. It’s interesting to note that Jackson’s Shaft doesn’t seem to spend as much time with the ladies as his uncle; Jackson and Williams’ onscreen relationship is platonic, with at most a low-key hint of attraction. Toni Collette does her best with the one-dimensional role of the intimidated witness.  Busta Rhymes supplies what is ostensibly comic relief as a friend of Shaft’s but like many of these kinds of characters is mostly superfluous and annoying, Richard Roundtree drops by in a few scenes, dispensing some mentor-type advice to his nephew (ladies still in tow), and Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Dan Hedaya are a pair of crooked cops in cahoots with Peoples whose performances border on cartoonish.  There’s bit parts for Daniel von Bargen, Pat Hingle, Josef Sommer, and Mekhi Phifer as the original murder victim.

Although the action seems to take place in the present day, there’s a deliberate ’70s flavor to the film, enhanced by frequent snippets of the original score. Isaac Hayes’ theme song is played unaltered over the opening credits. In addition to the presence of Richard Roundtree, Gordon Parks, who directed the original Shaft, has a cameo. The ‘new’ Shaft pays homage to the original while still entertaining in its own right. The plot moves at a brisk pace; Shaft is only ninety-nine minutes to begin with, and the time passes quickly. The movie also throws in a fair quotient of humor, some of which is self-referential. The handful of action scenes are routine, fairly brief, and perfunctory, but the movie is entertaining enough that it succeeds even without a memorable action sequence. And entertaining is all Shaft really aims to be; it’s a standard plot of a lone wolf cop bucking an ineffectual system to go after the rich boy baddie. Different individual scenes feel like they’re out of two more or less serious movies, as if it can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be a tongue-in-cheek nod to ’70s Blaxploitation flicks, with Shaft saying lines like ‘it’s my duty to please that booty’, or a gritty crime drama, with the casual viciousness of the opening murder and the deftness of the acting, dialogue, and direction in the meeting between Wade and Hernandez in which each tries to use the other for his own purposes. Jackson strides through the uncertain tone intact—there’s substantial enjoyment to be had just watching Jackson at his bad-ass best—and the best scenes in the movie are the ones that feature him and Bale, him and Wright, and Bale and Wright. Bale and Wright don’t phone in their bad guy roles; in fact, it’s entirely possible to argue that they’re two actors who are much better than the confines of the material. Wright in particular doesn’t just offer a one-dimensional caricature we might expect, but goes above the call of duty, investing about as much energy and character detail as we can ask for from a movie like this. Bale is also so good in his scenes opposite Jackson, and even more so in his scenes with Wright, that it’s a shame he isn’t given more to do; the movie can’t seem to make up its mind whether it wants Wade or Peoples to be the number one villain, but in its last third or so it mostly forgets about Wade and lets Peoples steal the show. The ending in particular is anti-climactic and ends the movie on a weak note. We don’t come to a movie like Shaft looking for low-key drama, we want to see some sort of climactic confrontation, and we don’t get it here, or at least not between the two characters the movie leads us to expect one from starting with practically the first scene.

But if Shaft isn’t exceptional, it’s mostly what it set out to be, entertaining- and thanks to a fast-moving plot, a certain amount of style and flair, Samuel L. Jackson, and a few nice touches from the supporting cast, it provides ninety-nine minutes of diverting entertainment, even if it’s only a few individual scenes that linger in the memory and hint at a potential beyond mild entertainment.