Shaft (2000) Jun 14, 2019 16:00:23 GMT -5
Post by StevePulaski on Jun 14, 2019 16:00:23 GMT -5
Directed by: John Singleton
Directed by: John Singleton
Samuel L. Jackson is John Shaft II in John Singleton's Shaft.
After being considerably underwhelmed by Gordon Parks' 1971 blaxploitation classic, I was leery of diving into another Shaft film, especially one not connected to the original trilogy of films (Parks' feature was followed by two sequels, one directed by him and one by John Guillermin, all within a three year span). But John Singleton's Shaft exists in that nebulous space where it's not clear if it's a sequel or a loosely connected remake; a gray-space where its motivations are to instill the titular character back into the popular consciousness while continuing a series of new adventures with another related character. In some ways, this is a passing-of-the-torch moment for John Shaft. Perhaps it's better to let your legacy continue with you living vicariously through your offspring as opposed to letting it die all together.
Samuel L. Jackson is John Shaft II, the son of Richard Roundtree's staple character, who does have a sizable part in this continuation of Parks' creation. From the opening moments, he asserts his presence as the same breed of toughness and no-nonsense that his father was and still is before reaching an age of disinterest in detective life. Singleton plunges us into the scene of the crime right away — outside of a local club where a black man has been violently bludgeoned to death. The murderer is Walter Wade, Jr (Christian Bale), the pampered son of a real estate mogul, who gets off with an easy bail before high-tailing it to Switzerland. This infuriates Shaft enough to give up the police force and become a freelance vigilante — existing in a space similar to the aforementioned gray area of the film, but there I go again getting ahead of myself.
Two years later, Shaft believes a waitress named Diane (Toni Collette), who was working at the club that night, saw more than she's letting on, prompting him to try and corner her for more information. While Shaft and his partner Carmen Vasquez (Vanessa Williams) track her down, Wade links up with Peoples (Jeffrey Wright), a wealthy drug-dealer who Shaft put behind bars, upon his return to the States. The plot thickens as Diane's brothers become more combative with police, and other parties, such as a duo of dirty cops (Dan Hedaya and Lee Tergesen), start playing both sides of the law. Shaft looks to his father for advice, but after going rogue, there's Carmen and few others around him he can truly trust.
From the jump, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of Shaft's storyline. Writers Singleton, Richard Price, and Shane Salerno infuse the sensibilities of blaxploitation — gaudy vehicles, guns, drugs, slick black garb, and racism — into the framework of a gritty, yet stylish urban drama. I'd argue there's more of an emphasis on the classic 1970s genre than Parks' film, which was rather commercial with a lead lacking a distinctive personality that could've been assigned to a character of any race. Jackson's Shaft is a man who struggles to fit in on either side of justice. At one point, he's referred to as someone "too black for a badge and too blue for the brothers," a struggle I'm sure African-American cops find themselves grappling with on a day-to-day basis, especially in hot-bed areas. The internal struggle for Shaft is ubiquitous throughout the film. He doesn't fit the corrupt ways of the police department and his brethren have rejected him, perceiving he's a sellout, even after he literally throws his badge at a judge.
On top of a rock-solid cast, Shaft gets huge points for credible, memorable villains. Peoples is not an empty caricature, but believably evil, and Wade goes beyond a stereotype of a caustic racist and becomes a formidable character with real prejudices on which he's clearly not afraid to act. Bale channels a similar energy that he did in American Psycho the same year, all but dialed down and plucked into a setting where he can openly be a murderer and still walk out a free-man. In some ways, the probability of a Walter Wade walking the streets should instill more fear in a society than a Patrick Bateman.
Then there's director John Singleton, someone I endlessly admire. He's proven to be terrific when given a large scale, and with Shaft, he confirms his ability to formulate and balance kinetic action with clarity and sophistication. Few directors can craft such well-made projects in a variety of different settings. Following this, he'd go on to make Baby Boy,a drama that could very well be among his two best films, an even higher-octane franchise film in 2 Fast 2 Furious, and the fan-favorite Four Brothers. All of this after he gave us such gems as Boyz N the Hood and Rosewood.
Shaft is another high-point for an eminently talented director and a fiercely enjoyable continuation of an intergenerational franchise that's relevance continues rather than falters with the times. The two ideas that are so integral to the character of John Shaft involve the temperature of the social/racial climate of America and the perception of "coolness;" the latter greatly differs in appearance alone from Parks' film to Singleton's. If Shaft the movie(s) and John Shaft the character(s) proceed to evolve with the times, I see no reason why this series can't and shouldn't march forward every couple decades.
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Vanessa Williams, Christian Bale, Jeffrey Wright, Toni Collette, Richard Roundtree, Dan Hedaya, and Lee Tergesen. Directed by: John Singleton.