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About the only thing this Shaft remake has in common with the original Richard Roundtree cop classic is that great Isaac Hayes theme song and similar funky score (and Roundtree pops up in a supporting role in this one). Both Shafts are swinging ladies men and both have to deal with race issues being African-American cops in a hostile world and working with a corrupt police force. What makes the remake stand out as more than just a serviceable late night TV time killer is the presence of two great unlikely villains teaming up, played by two great actors, Christian Bale and Jeffrey Wright, working at their scenery chewing best.
The original Shaft, directed by Gordon Parks is usually unjustly labeled "blaxploitation," but it’s degrading because Shaft was actually much closer in class and style to an acclaimed crime film like The French Connection than say, some jive like Superfly. Shaft became a minor cultural phenomenon, birthing two decent sequels and even a short-lived television series. The inevitable remake comes 30 years later, and though it might not have delivered as a franchise starter, it does deliver perfectly as a solid action guilty pleasure.
Manhattan detective John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) comes up against rich white boy Walter Wade, Jr (Bale) when the spoiled society kid beats a young black man to death in a racially motivated crime. A waitress (Toni Collette adding even more class to the cast) witnessed the crime but now she is on the run in fear for her life. Briefly jailed, Walter hooks up with a hotshot Dominican drug king pin, Peoples Hernandez (Wright), and puts a hit out on the witness with crooked cops (Dan Hedaya and Ruben Santiago-Hudson). Shaft, irate that the system would let a scumbag like Wade walk, quits the force to become a private investigator so he can pursue justice and the witness without the constraints of the force. Aided by his ex-partner (Vanessa Williams) and local homie (Busta Rhymes), a lot of bodies pile up in an effort to bring down the villains and protect the witness.
Jackson’s Shaft character is pretty action standard, his confidence is just one level below James Bond and he rarely makes mistakes or shows vulnerability. But the two bad guys feel very original, especially in this genre, and make the film more than watchable. Bale’s Wade falls somewhere between Bruce Wayne and American Psycho; he’s a yuppie, racist jerk, but physically fully comfortable on the mean streets of NY and even beats up a guy in prison who tries to take his designer shoes. After Bale’s outstanding performance in The Fighter he proves again that he is much more interesting in flawed character roles as opposed to heroes. Wright has quietly been one of the most versatile actors out there. His work on the stage (Angels in America) put him on the map and he has since shown incredible versatility in mostly supporting roles ranging from Basquiat to playing Colin Powell in Oliver Stone’s underrated Bush bio, W. Peoples Hernandez may be in his showiest role yet. He’s cocky, but wants to make a connection with silver-spooned Wade. When he needs to he can drop his almost fey image and become a badass tough guy. Instead of playing the more reserved CIA agent Felix in the latest round of James Bond flicks, his performance in Shaft alone shows he could merit his own action franchise.
Director John Singleton co-wrote Shaft with the great gritty, urban writer Richard Price who penned Clockers, perhaps the greatest novel about the modern drug trade, as well as a number of episodes of TV’s The Wire. Though Shaft doesn’t have the depth of Price’s best work, it does have some snappy dialogue and some good crime movie twists, as well as those two great antagonist roles.
Singleton has not lived up to the high expectations some may have had for him when at 23 he was the youngest person ever nominated for a directing Oscar for his first feature, Boyz n the Hood. His straight dramatic films since (based on his own screenplays) - Poetic Justice and Higher Learning - were pretty sophomoric but Shaft, 2 Fast 2 Furious, and the fun "blaxploitationy" Four Brothers prove he is good at handling action and solid b-movie fluff. It will be interesting to see if Singleton ever reaches those critical heights again with a more mature film, but in the meantime there’s nothing wrong with being a solid journeyman director and creating pure entertainment, which Shaft delivers perfectly.