What if Shaft got whitewashed? What if the ultimate brothaman met with milquetoast and ended up a lighter shade of brown? What if the greatest known private dick got a script where he couldn’t even use it? What if, in a modern world divided between ghetto thugs and killer white boys, Shaft was not the epitome of Black Power soul but just a working class joe with no afro? What if? Could you dig it, man?
Because that’s what the new “Shaft” gives you. It’s a good movie, a competent movie, everything a big summer movie should be with its big star and shoot ’em up scenes and soundtrack that insists you buy it. But the reality is, this ain’t your Daddy’s “Shaft.” Samuel L. Jackson (“Rules of Engagement,” “Pulp Fiction”) is a soulless Shaft with no heartfelt complications and only a parody of convictions, a stereotypical Hollywood character of a guy–any guy–just trying to do mostly the right thing. The original Shaft was so striking to a black community who’d never before been allowed a black hero because he was a furious urban enigma. This Shaft, director John Singleton’s Shaft, is just another hero.
The story is that this John Shaft is the original Shaft’s NYPD-employed nephew. Brought in to investigate the brutal bar murder of one young black man, Trey Howard (Mekhi Phifer), by a racist young white man, Walter Wade (Christian Bale), Shaft encounters a frightened waitress witness, Diane Palmieri (Toni Collette), and quickly figures Wade’s the killer. But when Diane takes off in fear before she can be interrogated and Wade skips town for Switzerland on bail, Shaft is left with no justice. With a quick jump ahead to two years later, during which Shaft earns the enmity of local Dominican drug king, Peoples Herandez (Jeffrey Wright), Shaft finally nabs Wade when he returns secretly to the States.
But hey! There’s more film to shoot! So, bad boy Wade and bad boy Peoples cross socio-economic classes to bond in jail and, after the trust-fund toting Wade makes bail yet again, Shaft quits the force in fury. “Too black for the badge,” he claims at one point, shaking his head, “too blue for the brothas.” Once both out, Wade and Peoples reunite through mutual hate for John Shaft and the triangle battles its way through the rest of the movie looking for a secret-having Diane Palmieri while everyone tries to kill each other. The tale always moves along at a clip, making sure to never leave its audience bored or distracted, all along with the funky beats of its retro-inspired soundtrack revisited by Isaac Hayes himself.
Jackson’s performance is capable and adept, but never more than that. And he has little character to inhabit here as written; we never even see Shaft at home, much less in a vulnerable or intimate moment. (He declares at one point, “It’s my duty to please that booty,” but never actually does.) A plentiful cast of strong supporting performances help “Shaft” greatly. Jeffrey Wright (“Basquiat,” “Hamlet”) as Peoples Hernandez is a transcendent sight, embodying the kind of urban angst so bereft from the movie’s central character. Bale (“American Psycho”) as Wade is punchily clever, and rapper Busta Rhymes (“Higher Learning”) as Rasaan, who helps Shaft out with street-wise tricks, brings a playful brevity to a mostly hard-core focus. Vanessa Williams (“Soul Food”) is forgettable and rarely seen as Shaft’s babe-on-the-force peer, but Collette (“The Sixth Sense”) as Diane is a able representation of a scared girl on the lam. Dan Hedaya (“Dick”) makes a too-brief appearance as part of a corrupt cop duo who attempt to thwart Shaft’s good guy moves, and Richard Roundtree, the original Shaft himself, makes an entertaining set of brief appearances as Uncle Shaft.
Singleton, since the movie’s release, has said, seemingly defensively, that this “Shaft” is not a remake but the next “Shaft.” Certainly, the last thing here Singleton does is reinvent the blaxploitation genre for modern times. The opportunity for revisionism here is sorely missed; Singleton’s lack of influence makes Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” look far funkier in comparison. What is so profoundly absent from this “Shaft” is any semblance of subversion–aside from the black Jesus laminated to Shaft’s bullet-proof vest–as the movie is largely absent of any contrariness. Singleton’s directorial stamp has never been as consistently hard-core as, say the Hughes brothers, and his lack of initiative in tackling the real complexities of race and racial issues in today’s society is perfectly captured in the director’s own “Shaft” cameo. As The Boyz battle it out in a jail cell, Singleton as warden, just shakes his head and goes back to reading his paper.
Too bad. Shaft deserves better.