Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Shaft

By Marjorie Baumgarten

JUNE 19, 2000: 

D: John Singleton; with Samuel L. Jackson, Vanessa Williams, Jeffrey Wright, Christian Bale, Busta Rhymes, Dan Hedaya, Toni Collette, Richard Roundtree, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Josef Sommer, Lynne Thigpen, Philip Bosco, Pat Hingle, Mekhi Phifer. (R, 98 min.)

John Shaft is back ... and he's still the man, but probably only because he's played by the coolest actor cat around ­ Samuel L. Jackson. This remake/update/sequel of the 1971 blaxploitation classic starring Richard Roundtree is a muddled treat: Seeing our culture's No. 1 black action hero back on the screen and poised for another franchise run and spit in the eye of racist America is initially a thrill, but our disappointment begins to set in once the new movie's toe-tapping opening credits (set to the original Isaac Hayes theme song) subside. The storyline goes from bad to worse as one-dimensional characters gradually flatten out into pure stick figures, and the crime plot goes from hokey to implausible. This lack of substance and credulity comes as a surprise in a screenplay by Richard Price (Sea of Love, The Color of Money, Clockers), Richard Salerno (Armageddon)and Singleton (Boyz N the Hood, Higher Learning, Rosewood). The movie's unshapeliness is due perhaps to the filmmakers' uncertainty about the film's objectives. Is this a contemporary updating of the original series, a loose relation, or a completely new avenue? Jackson's Shaft is the nephew of Richard Roundtree's original, who also shows up a couple of times in the new version to offer advice to his namesake and walk off into the sunset with a couple of babes ­ which is more action than we see the younger John Shaft getting. The implications are all there that he's still "a sex machine with all the chicks," but whether the movie's lack of viewer consummation/confirmation is a bow to these STD times or a matter of personal and/or political prurience is unknown. All we know is that this private dick keeps his private. Adding to the overall confusion is that boththe 1971 and 2000 versions are titled Shaft, lending ammunition to the idea that Singleton lacked clarity regarding his point of departure. Another tribute to the Seventies is the new Shaft'swonderful use of playful transition wipes, although it would have been preferable for the transitions to emerge organically from the otherwise choppy story. And though the new Shaft was shot on location, it never equals the original's heady, live-from-the-streets feel. Jeffrey Wright (Basquiat) turns in a memorably showboat performance as a crime lord with an over-the-top Dominican-American accent. Yet in a movie that is so anchored by Jackson's commanding presence, it's no small feat for an actor to hold his own. None of the other actors fare as well as Wright. They are lost in the vague backwash of the story: Bale plays a more one-dimensional version of his American Psycho character, Williams and Collette have little to do, and Busta Rhymes is serviceable in the jokester sidekick role. Singleton achieves some good moments in the action sequences but loses out to his Shaft hero worship. And in this case the hero ain't more than a thin slab of meat between two slices of bread and the shaft is ... well, I'll leave that up for grabs.

2.5 Stars


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