Screenplay : Richard Price and John Singleton & Shane Salerno (based on the novel by Ernest Tidyman)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Samuel L. Jackson (John Shaft), Vanessa Williams (Carmen), Jeffrey Wright (Peoples Hernandez), Christian Bale (Walter Williams), Dan Hedaya (Jack Roselli), Busta Rhymes (Rasaan), Toni Collette (Diane), Richard Roundtree (Uncle John)
Isaac Hayes' funky theme song is still exactly the same, but that is about the only thing John Singleton's "Shaft" has in common with the original 1971 blaxploitation classic directed by Gordon Parks.
The difference can be summed up in the opening credits sequence. In the original, the camera focuses on private detective John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) as he walks confidently down a busy New York street, walking out in front of a car and giving the driver the finger when yelled at to get out of the road. With his assured stride and high-style leather jacket, Shaft was confidence incarnate, which is what set him apart from other black movie characters that had come before him.
As Theophilus Green wrote in an August 1972 article in "Ebony" magazine, "He's a bad, black private detective, a dude who's got his program all together and he knows it." Or, as Donald Bogle described him in his book-length study of African-American cinema, "As Roundtree's John Shaft--mellow but assertive and unintimidated by whites--bopped through those hot mean streets dressed in his cool leather, he looked to black audiences like a brother they had seen many time before but never on screen."
Now, consider the opening credits sequence of Singleton's film: Instead of simple tracking shots where Shaft himself dominates the center of the frame, we get a highly stylized montage of close-ups of sex, guns, and fragments of Shaft's body. Rather than being about Shaft's presence--the way he holds himself as a character--this sequence is more about John Singleton as a filmmaker. More specifically, it is about Singleton as one of the premiere African-American filmmakers working today and how he is putting his own stamp on one the seminal characters in black cinema.
In the new film, there is little need, as in the original, to establish Shaft's presence. After all, he is played by Samuel L. Jackson, whose numerous bad-ass, tough-talking roles over the past 10 years in films like "Pulp Fiction" (1994) and "The Negotiator" (1998) have already placed him as someone to be reckoned with. Jackson has to do little more than give a look to make clear that he means business; it is his stock and trade as an actor. There is probably no one else who could have filled Roundtree's shoes.
However, Jackson is not really filling those shoes because he doesn't play the same character Roundtree did in 1971. In fact, Roundtree, 29 years older, appears in several scenes playing Shaft's Uncle John, a private detective. So, Jackson is actually playing the police detective nephew of Roundtree's private dick from the first film. In this way, Jackson isn't saddled with having to emulate the work Roundtree already did. Instead, he can put his own spin on the character, making it his own.
This was a wise decision on the filmmakers' part, as it allows Jackson the freedom he needs, and it also allows for some enjoyable scenes in which Roundtree can reprise his most famous role, abeit older and, perhaps, wiser. Jackson's Shaft is tougher and less smooth that Roundtree's character. This is not to say the Jackson doesn't have his moments, but his assured cockiness is more violent than sexual. Jackson's Shaft spends far more time putting bullets in people than he does sweeping women off their feet (in fact, the brief sexual escapades glimpsed in the opening credits montage is the only on-screen sex in the film).
Plotwise, the new "Shaft" in no way resembles the '71 film. Singleton's version opens with a racially motivated killing in which a young, rich, and utterly detestable sociopath named Walter Williams (Christian Bale) kills a black man by beating him to death with a metal pole. Why? Because Walter apparently didn't think that someone of color belonged in the upscale restaurant at which he was having drinks. Because Walter's father is the wealthiest real estate developer in New York, he is given bail and skips the country.
This is only the beginning, and the complex plot, written by Richard Price, Singleton, and Shane Salerno, quickly involves Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright), a flashy Latino drug lord whom Walter hires to kill Diane (Toni Collette), a bartender who witnessed his crime. This is further complicated by a pair of dirty cops who are playing both sides of the game, not to mention the fact that Diane was threatened by Walter, and hence she also disappears in order to avoid testifying.
Singleton ("Boyz N the Hood," "Rosewood") is a confident director, and he gives "Shaft" a slick coat of Hollywood polish that the original was lacking. The movie is loud and unrelenting, especially in the last 15 minutes that turn into a virtual bloodbath with Shaft and his partner, Carmen (Vanessa Williams), fighting off Peoples' entire army of gangsters, as well as the pair of dirty cops working with them. If Singleton had only put on the slow motion theatrics when Shaft is firing a gun in each hand, one might wonder if a reel from a John Woo film had accidentally gotten sliced into the projector.
Those who have an affinity for Gordon Parks' original film need not feel it has been threatened in any way. Singleton has made an entirely different picture; it's more of a distant sequel than a remake. Interestingly enough, Singleton has also heightened the racial tension. Throughout the film, racial slurs fly back and forth between whites, blacks, and Latinos; some of it is played for laughs, but other moments have an intentionally sharp edge.
The fact that the film kicks off with a white man beating to death a black man for being in the wrong restaurant sets a tone that hovers over the rest of the film. "Shaft" is intended as entertainment, but that doesn't mean it is lacking anything to say. In fact, the final outcome of the film suggests that modern society is still in need of great deal of racial rehabilitation. No matter how light-hearted or pulpy the action gets, Singleton maintains just enough tension to remind us of how unfortunate it is that, 29 years after the original "Shaft" wowed audience by putting a black man at the center of a conventional action film, there is little reason to believe that a similar character can now be viewed colorblind.
|Audio||Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround|
Dolby 2.0 Surround
|Languages||English (5.1), French (2.0)|
|Supplements|| "Reflections on Shaft": Cast and crew interviews|
"Shaft: Still the Man": Making-of featurette
Original theatrical trailer
"Theme From Shaft" Isaac Hayes music video
"Bad Man" R. Kelly music video
|"Shaft" is presented in an anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer that looks superb. The image is clean and sharp without any noticeable edge enhancement and without a trace of compression artifacts Colors are strong and life-like, and black levels are solid with good shadow detail. The image quality of the DVD is actually superior to what I saw in the theaters, which I remember as being far too dark (probably the fault of the projectionist). Regardless, this is an excellent transfer.|
|Likewise, the aggressive Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is top-notch. For those looking for a disc that will give their home theater sound system a work-out, this would be a great choice. Isaac Hayes' classic theme song has never sounded better, and the soundtrack reproduces all the funky wah-wah guitar rhythms and low-end bass with crystal clarity and no distortion. Speaking of bass, the "Shaft" soundtrack is notably bass-heavy, from the thumping musical score to the numerous car crashes and gun shots, all of which sounds deep and clean. The surround speakers are often very active, especially during the constantly escalating action sequences. This is a soundtrack worth turning up loud and rattling the walls.|
|The "Shaft" DVD has a handful supplements, none of which are particularly impressive. |
First is "Reflections of Shaft," which consists of roughly 13 minutes of interviews with director John Singleton and just about every member of the cast, including Samuel L. Jackson, Christian Bale, Vanessa Williams, Jeffrey Wright, and Toni Collette. They have some interesting things to say about the movie, although much of it is typical publicity back-slapping, which is ironic considering the reports of a tension-filled shoot. On a side note, listening to the interviews gives you a heightened respect for several of the actors' abilities to do accents, as both Collette and Bale have British accents that were well-hidden, and Wright's plain speaking style shows no trace of the heavy Dominican accent he used in the film.
"Shaft: Still the Man" is a 16-minute making-of featurette, and, like the interviews, it is more about publicity than it is informing. It a typical, run-of-the-mill DVD featurette, composed of some behind-the-scenes footage, clips from the film, and plenty of interviews that cover mostly the same ground as "Reflections on Shaft." It's too bad someone didn't make a more in-depth documentary about the "Shaft" phenomenon through the years and the difficulties experienced by Singleton and other members of the cast and crew in getting the new version put together.
Finally, the disc also has an original theatrical trailer (in nonanamorphic widescreen) and two music videos, one for Isaac Hayes' theme song and the other for R. Kelly's "Bad Man."
©2000 James Kendrick