[Written for Fim.com]
In this remake, Richard Roundtree, the original John Shaft, graciously passes the torch to Samuel L. Jackson. The new film’s director, John Singleton, gives Roundtree some major respect, including a scene where Roundtree exits a Harlem bar with two foxy ladies on his arms. Right on: after all these years, still a sex machine to the chicks. (That’s Gordon Parks, the distinguished American artist and director of the first Shaft, in a cameo at the same bar.)
Nice to see the granddaddy of all Mack Daddys again, but Roundtree’s presence points up one of the problems with the Shaft remake. While Samuel L. Jackson is an awe-inspiring actor, with a couple of Oscars in his future, he doesn’t quite have that straight-ahead sexy simplicity that the part calls for. The bluntness of the role—his name is John Shaft, for crying out loud—profits from the movie-star treatment, not from an actor’s expressiveness.
The movie itself gets scattered in a similar way. The original plot is erased in favor of a story about a rich white boy (Christian Bale) killing a black guy in a racially motivated crime. Shaft is a member of the NYPD, bringing along his rather loose interpretation of the Supreme Court’s rulings about police behavior (he socks the suspect in the nose for chuckling at the death throes of the victim). The story thereafter expands in many different directions: the suspect flees the country, then returns; a Dominican drug dealer (Jeffrey Wright) somehow becomes a part of the case; Shaft searches for a witness (Toni Collette) to the murder.
There’s also an attempt to give the flavor of a police procedural, including a curious scene in which Shaft’s superior (Daniel von Bargen) boasts about living in a restricted neighborhood on Long Island. (Shaft questions him about his tony home, raising the issue of police corruption, but Shaft strides around in Armani without anybody raising an eyebrow.) A pair of crooked cops get into Shaft’s business, too, further crowding the scene. All this activity makes it difficult to just sit back and enjoy Shaft in the way we want to enjoy him: a sleek stud with a big gun, with Isaac Hayes’s theme music trailing in his wake.
The script is partly credited to Richard Price, that master of hard-boiled discourse, and presumably we can thank him for the frequent bursts of tangy dialogue. John Singleton, who also produced and co-wrote the picture, wants to cover as many bases as he can—too many bases. The issues of racism are raised without being pursued, the mechanics of the story aren’t skillfully constructed. And what’s with the screen time given to an officer played by Vanessa Williams? She serves no function except to be a positive role model. Meanwhile, Shaft goes about his extralegal activities with the audience’s approval, which leads the movie into rather queasy territory, especially given the realities of what happens in New York when police overstep their duties.
One person keeps Shaft interesting, and that’s Jeffrey Wright, who was so good in Ride With the Devil. His portrayal of Peoples Hernandez, the small-time Dominican crime boss, might have been a familiar accent-and-gold-chains turn seen countless times on NYPD Blue. Instead, Wright loses himself in the role—he’s unrecognizable from Ride With the Devil or Basquiat—and creates a detailed character, laced with neurosis, a Caribbean lilt, and self-regard; Peoples is so neatly groomed he practically licks himself. The movie keeps gravitating back to him, even though he doesn’t bear all that directly on the plot. In a lost cause, this is a brilliant stunt.