Combustible Celluloid
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With: Samuel L. Jackson, Vanessa Williams, Jeffrey Wright, Christian Bale, Busta Rhymes, Dan Hedaya, Toni Collette, Richard Roundtree
Written by: Richard Price, John Singleton, Shane Salerno, based on the novel by Ernest Tidyman
Directed by: John Singleton
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence and language
Running Time: 99
Date: 06/16/2000

Shaft (2000)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Who Is the Man?

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The new Shaft startsout promisingly. The familiar theme music by IsaacHayes comes up, and we wait for it to disintegrate into some new techno-houseversion, but it doesn't. And that feels good. This Shaft notonly has Richard Roundtree -- theoriginal Shaft from the 1970's -- but also SamuelL. Jackson, one of the strongest actors working today, and is helmedby John Singleton,the Oscar-nominated director of Boyz N the Hood (1991).

With all this I expected a great time at the movies. But Shaft quickly splits into two different movies, and only one of them fully succeeds.

Luckily the movie that succeeds is the movie that everyone is going to pay to see. This is the movie where Shaft (Jackson) is a bad mutha (hush your mouth!!!) and can kick any butt in the room. Neither Russell Crowe in Gladiator nor Tom Cruise in M:I-2 stand a chance against this Shaft. I don't even think the original Shaft stands a chance. Jackson, who has dabbled in this genre before in Quentin Tarantino's films Pulp Fiction (1994) and Jackie Brown (1997), as well as a cameo in Sig Shore's The Return of Superfly (1990), occupies the role with supreme cool and wit. You can see his brain working through his powerful eyes.

In this movie the new Shaft, the nephew of the old Shaft, is on the trail of both a rich white race killer, Walter Wade (Christian Bale, fresh from American Psycho), and a small-time drug lord named Peoples (Jeffrey Wright). Wade has a rich father protecting him and never seems to make it to trial. While spending a night in jail, Wade meets and hires Peoples to knock off the only witness to his crime. Recent Oscar nominee Toni Collette plays the witness who doesn't want to be found. And soon everyone is looking for her: Shaft and his helpers, cop Vanessa Williams and streetwise hustler Busta Rhymes, and a pair of crooked cops (Dan Hedaya and Ruben Santiago-Hudson).

For a change the villains of this movie, Wade and Peoples, are onscreen enough to actually develop some kind of character. They're not your usual sinister, sneering, purely evil two-dimensional parts like Joaquin Phoenix's role in Gladiator. Likewise, no time is wasted trying to bring us up to date on Shaft himself. As the movie starts, we quickly see that Shaft has already been a badass for a while and knows the streets.

In the tradition of the original three Shaft movies -- Shaft (1971), Shaft's Big Score (1972), and Shaft in Africa (1973) as well as many other blaxploitation films -- Singleton, who co-wrote the screenplay with Richard Price and Shane Salerno, has woven serious racial undertones into the new Shaft. While it's refreshing to see a film openly discuss race, I wonder if an action film is the place to do it? After all, Shaft is a violent fantasy movie, in which race troubles are solved with guns.

Still, this conundrum didn't bother me until the end of the movie, when the filmmakers threw in a desperate and agonizing twist. If the film had just ended at that point, we might have come away with something more successfully thought provoking. Instead a tacked-on coda that smacks of test-audience results hints at a happy ending and sequels to come, and felt like a real cop-out.

And yet, I enjoyed the first 90% of this new Shaft. It seems to be asking a lot this summer to find even one movie with a plot and characters that make sense and photography that allows you to see what's going on. But Shaft provides those basic elements and a lot of fun besides. For all its failings, it has the most integrity and brains of all the summer movies so far. And you gotta love that old theme song!

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