New `Shaft' is summer action done right

Review: Samuel L. Jackson and director John Singleton bring the 1970s Blaxploitation classic into the 21st century with style.

June 16, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Let's talk trash.

There's bad trash - those summer movies on the order of "M:I2" and "Gone in 60 Seconds," whose cardinal emotional effect on filmgoers is the feeling that they've been bludgeoned to death by the filmmakers' egos, cynicism and newly laden coffers.

Then there's good trash - throwaway, intellectually undemanding action movies that, despite their heavy body counts and hard edges, are executed with a touch of class and a sunny disposition. The good news is that "Shaft," John Singleton's eagerly anticipated updating of the 1971 Blaxploitation classic, can be happily tossed into the latter bin.

Featuring a magnetic performance by Samuel L. Jackson in the very cool lead role, "Shaft" is a throwback in the best sense of the word. Singleton has made a movie that harkens back to the look and feel of 1970s films, but his movie crackles with contemporary intensity. Jackson's Shaft - the nephew of the detective played by Richard Roundtree in the original "Shaft" cycle - is still battling The Man, but here The Man shape-shifts according to modern-day New York's complex skein of racial and cultural tensions.

Indeed, from "Shaft's" opening sequence - in which an African-American man (Mekhi Phifer) is murdered by a wealthy jerk (Christian Bale) while on a date with his white girlfriend, it's clear that the movie will not be just a nifty cat-and-mouse chase - which it is - but a shoot-em-up in which race will be the axis around which most of the violence turns. The degree to which fists, guns and other forms of aggression are used to solve problems may give mild-mannered audiences some discomfort, but there's no denying the vicarious thrill of watching Shaft punch out a mouthy racist punk.

When the murderous Yuppie jumps bail, Shaft goes on one of his famous "now it's personal" missions, and must wait two years for his quarry to tip his hand. Once he does, Shaft runs him down, crossing paths with a colorful Dominican drug lord (Jeffrey Wright, who provides abundant comic relief here), a reluctant witness to the original crime (Toni Collette) and some colleagues on the police force who may or may not be in his corner. As Shaft explains midway through the movie, "I've always been too black for the uniform, and too blue for the brothers."

This observation is typically pointed in a film that is very much a product of the New York streets, where tribes continually collide and layer over each other, creating a vivid, often funny and sometimes deadly palimpsest of language and cultures.

Jackson, who comes into his own here as a commanding leading man, inhabits Shaft with sexy ease, from his stylish porkpie hats to a bespoke leather jacket. Reportedly, the actor was disappointed that his character didn't have more romantic moments in "Shaft," but the movie benefits from the streamlining: Here, the detective is all business, and he goes about it in a tough yet easygoing way; he's the epitome of cool, whether he's dispatching someone with a bullet or a basketball. The climactic automobile chase may not be as flashy as that in "Gone in 60 Seconds," but at least filmgoers care about the people in the car.

Singleton, who has been missed since his last movie, the 1997 "Rosewood," has crafted a straightforwardly entertaining diversion without the ragged editing and other MTV-era distractions that characterize so many of this year's summer fare. He moves the camera with flair, but never for its own sake, and he isn't afraid to have the action unfold scene by scene rather than shot by shot.

What's more, he gives due propers to the original "Shaft," which defined a crucial turning point in American cinema as the first movie in which a black man was a bona-fide action hero. From the retro-looking wipes he uses as transitions between scenes to the Isaac Hayes-inflected soundtrack, he firmly roots the 21st century "Shaft" in that tradition. A shot of Roundtree and Gordon Parks, the original "Shaft" director, in an early scene set in Harlem's legendary Lenox Lounge pays splendid homage to the people and places that have made such vital contributions to popular culture.

The best news of all is that "Shaft" ends on a note that promises a collaboration between uncle and nephew down the road, a prospect that makes future summers look a whole lot brighter.

'Shaft'

Starring Samuel L Jackson, Vanessa Williams, Jeffrey Wright, Christian Bale

Directed by John Singleton

Rated R (strong violence and language)

Running time 100 minutes

Released by Paramount Pictures

Sun score ***

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