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IN SHORT: Fun for 20. Rated [R]
"I got two words for any critic that don't like this!" said the man walking up the aisle, loudly enough for all the critics to hear. What, do you suppose, those two words could be? Could they be . . .
"leather coat," as in John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) looks damn fine in a long one. or . . .
"bad attitude," as in Shaft tosses tons of it, all of it in situations that make it good for a satisfying giggle. Or . . .
"fine babe," which Vanessa L. Williams, as Shaft's partner Carmen surely is.
"good haircut," not as in Jackson's bald pate but as in the truly cool shape of his goatee. Or . . .
"Chef sings!," as in "I thought "Salty Balls" was a joke but this Isaac Hayes guy can really sing! or . . .
"thank you," as in "Thank you, Cranky, for warning me not to waste my money on this barely fit for teevee level flick." Shaft, the movie, would never pass teevee muster due to the preponderance of four letter words beginning with the sixth letter of the alphabet -- which is probably the first letter of the first word the kidlet had in mind when us critics were warned.
The shame is that the three writers on this project could come up with interesting bits for all the characters and still saddle 'em with a story so lightweight that all we get for our money is a lot of scenery chewing and grandstanding. Take Detective John Shaft (Jackson), who plays fast and loose with police rules of conduct while investigating the murder of a young black man beaten to death by a rich white guy. The pale faced uniforms on site do our equivalent of a shuck n jive to rich guy Walter Wade (Christian Bale) and the only witness to the crime, a bartender named Diane (Toni Collette) sneaks out the back door. Despite fingerprints on a murder weapon, the punk gets bail and promptly skips off to Switzerland.
Now, despite all you've read, this first twenty minutes or so of Jackson tossing attitude and railing at the System is a blast. When Wade sneaks back into the county Shaft is there, aided by his man on the street, Rasaan (Busta Rhymes). Once again Wade makes bail. Shaft "quits" the force and tears through street punks like Dirty Harry, searching for the still missing waitress. It's interesting to note that, once he's out of the force, all the lower level racist cops look the other way as Shaft busts up the street
Wade has hired a Dominican drug king pin Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright) to do the same, and make the girl disappear. Last element in the story is another corrupt detective, Jack Roselli (Dan Hedaya) and it doesn't take much to figure that we're going to be treated to one hell of a firefight by the time this movie is over. I wish that I could drop this into a bin labeled "guilty pleasure" and walk away, but I can't. In general, the script is sloppy and lightweight though the elements of racism are not, sadly, in the realm of stereotype. Real life actions by the NYPD shame the city. John Singleton's direction looks like bad teevee. Toni Collette's performance is so awful that it'll make you wonder how she managed an Oscar nomination for The Sixth Sense -- long term readers know I rarely harp on the occasional bad perf. It comes with the territory. This time out, though, it's painful.
What's really painful is that, shining out from the midst of all this drek, is the tantalizing prospect of what could have been. When Detective John Shaft is driven up the wall by the aforementioned system, he's got the support and advice of his Uncle John (Richard Roundtree) to fall back on. Uncle John used to be a Detective but he's now a successful private investigator, having quit the force after getting tired of all the crap that his nephew is dealing with in the current day. For those of you born since 1971, Roundtree was the first "Shaft," in Gordon Parks' film that set the standard for a "based in reality" black superhero. The onscreen chemistry between Shaft version one and Shaft version two is absolute dynamite and while Roundtree does a lot more than the walk on for one scene cameo, we wish there could have been more.
All the while,
Isaac Hayes' original theme song and a new underscore based on that song
pounds away. Thirty years after the original flick, Hayes' song is all
I remember. Thirty years from now, if I live that long, it will probably
be all I remember of this version. Except, maybe, for Jackson's goatee.
Rent it, which is one of two ways to get Shaft uncensored on your small screen. There's just not enough fun in the flick to justify the extra buck for the pay-per-view level.
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