Movie review: ‘Shaft’

Urban legend: The man is back
Smooth stars, shallow plot. But it’s ‘Shaft,’ so we’re cool with that

June 16, 2000, Austin American-Statesman

Samuel L. Jackson speaks like a building storm; his words have lightning jags in them.

When he taunts his quarry, which he does with great frequency in the moderately enjoyable retro thriller “Shaft,” his throat tightens, throttling syllables. His voice kicks up a few octaves until words sing with angry strain. Expletives fly in shrapnel sprays.

“What’s my name? What’s . . . my . . . name?” shouts Jackson at a preening dope dealer as his pistol forges an elaborate imprint on the pusher’s cheek.

The answer is simple: Shaft. But, you know, it’s hard to talk when your teeth have just been knocked out.

In his crime-dude roles, in films like “Pulp Fiction” and “The Negotiator,” Jackson is pure gale-force attitude and wrath-of-God fury. He’s no less here, if slightly tempered by the velvet savoir faire that runs in the Shaft genes.

It would be helpful to clarify here. Jackson does not play Shaft — the Shaft, John Shaft, the buff, unruffled private detective Richard Roundtree created in Gordon Parks’ 1971 blaxploitation hit “Shaft.” His name may be John Shaft in this vivid homage to the original, but he’s merely the nephew of Roundtree’s Shaft. Got that?

Roundtree, thick and hale and still, 29 years later, sporting a resplendent turtleneck, pops up two or three times here as . . . Uncle John. About now, you can consider the word “shaft” as a verb.

(Old Uncle John does keep his rabid-eyed nephew in check, dispensing wisdom laced with liquid smoke: “You’re too hot, man. You gotta step off a bit.” Not exactly Ann Landers, but somehow it works with whiskey and a cigar.)

Get over the risible uncle-nephew contrivance and you might glean reasonable fun watching this contemporized rendition of an old funk song. That too — Isaac Hayes’ Oscar- and Grammy-winning theme tune, a sequins-spangled call-and-response groove — is back with new polish.

Director John Singleton, whose work has disheartened since his keen debut “Boyz N the Hood,” keeps “Shaft” popping on a fizzy retro vibe, but he isn’t overly impressed by or worried about the iconic template he’s retooling. This is good, because it saves us from another bout of glib ’70s genuflection, which long ago made our back and knees ache. Even Roundtree’s poofy Afro tuft has been shrink-fitted to his skull.

“Shaft’s” pace is brisk, after a poky start, and Singleton loads almost every scene with a hard jolt of concussive violence. It’s a more-than-competent urban action flick, with plenty of quickening laughs. A funky wah-wah shuffle and bleating horns propel the spurts of guns and cars and thrashing fists. Indeed, the entire soundtrack, by Hayes and David Arnold, bracingly complements the fast and funny action.

With a shiny head and a three-pronged goatee, Jackson’s Shaft is a man on a quest. He’s a New York City detective (unlike Roundtree’s private eye) who takes justice into his own hands to right a grievous wrong. His heart has a paternal largeness, his temper match-strike brevity.

The booby traps and obstacles in Shaft’s way are punks and thugs and a couple of corrupt cops, pals from the precinct. Jackson busts their chops, incessantly, furiously. We thrill to his raw ‘tude; his scruple-free victories shoot us through with cathartic tingles. Shaft gets his men in spotless style that invites heroic fantasies in young men. He’s certainly enjoying himself, but he’s doing it for us, man.

Singleton’s big-hearted script, which got a vigorous rejigger by urban-crime expert Richard Price, is prosaic stuff dressed in Versace leather; it’s slashing style over infinitesimal substance. It’s ostensively about a jaundiced justice system that lets rich white boys walk — here, the scintillatingly vile Christian Bale in a continuation of his “American Psycho” sadist — when their victim is black.

It’s also a bit about American racism, vigilante revenge and brute righteousness. And it’s a whole lot about kicking thorough booty.

Compared with the first “Shaft,” this redux is alarmingly stingy with sex (I can’t even remember if Shaft scores). The only discharge is by guns. Meanwhile, it presents a more pointed look at black-white antagonism to reflect today’s frank and complicated racial ozone.

A movie this slight doesn’t deserve a cast this good. The performances are sometimes brilliantly entertaining, including those by Jackson, Bale, rapper Busta Rhymes and Toni Collette. As a menacing Dominican drug lord, Jeffrey Wright is the exciting standout, all prickles and electric swagger.

“Shaft” is an orgy of fetishized cool and canonized posturing, not unlike a John Woo glare-fest. It’s about how neat guns look blazing, about Jackson removing his shades in close-up, and about his overcoat snapping as he struts through traffic, on his way to teach some punk his name.

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