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*Also starring: Vanessa L. Williams, Busta Rhymes, Dan Hedaya, Philip Bosco, Jeffrey Wright, Toni Collette, Jennifer Esposito

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

"Shaft" was the subject of a debate in the Online Film Critics Society forum that brought almost a record number of responses. A white male who is, I suspect, of a liberal persuasion, wondered, "What is John Singleton aiming for with his update of the lowly (by my standards) 'Shaft'? And why would a black filmmaker want to reinvigorate the blaxploitation genre, when it was clearly not a highpoint for African-American cinema? In my opinion, Singleton should keep on doing what he does best. Making truthful films about real African-American life."

The liberal was skewered by a white woman whose politics I is further to the left. "You shouldn't be so hasty to take social entities out of context. Blaxploitation may not be high art, but it was groundbreaking as far as African American cinema goes. Just ask any African-American who was around at the time when 'Shaft' came out. After decades of enduring movies in which blacks were ridiculed and dehumanized--experiences which they have described as making them leave the theaters in shame, self-hatred and embarrassment--they finally had their own cinema. And their own heroes who prevailed against white racism. Singleton likely became involved in this project to honor and pay homage to his own racially visionary roots."

To which a third member responded, "I myself am black, and I don't think blaxploitation is a low point, au contraire. These are cool movies, dammit! Is there a cooler, badder actress in movies than Pam Grier, black or not? Blaxploitation is not about art, quality filmmaking or depth, it's about music, clothes and attitude! As movies, films like Dolemite or Superfly are mediocre at best, but man are these dudes electrifying! I for one am looking forward to seeing the new 'Shaft,' with Sam 'my middle name is attitude' Jackson."

Watch "Shaft" and see the first speaker's faux-PC attitude go up in smoke. Sure, there's a market for movies about "the way black people really live today," but there's nothing negative about so-called blaxploitation flicks. With Samuel L. Jackson in the most charismatic good-guy role of this year, "Shaft" is director/co-writer John Singleton's resoundingly imaginative reinvention of the 1971 heavy sex-and-violence groundbreaker, which featured Richard Roundtree in the title role as Shaft.

Now, three decades later, Mr. Attitude returns, this time taking advantage of some of the cinematic tricks learned since the original. Happily, Singleton restrains himself on the f/x, providing Shaft with only a single obviously faked image as he announces his resignation from the sluggish justice establishment by flinging his badge at the judge--who had just provided absurdly low bail for a rich preppie accused of homicide.

As sleek as "Mission Impossible 2" but a lot more fun, "Shaft" opens on a note of high adrenaline as we are introduced to the larger-than-life hero against the background of Isaac Hayes's winning theme song, knocked out in much the style it was tendered in the seventies. Shaft is on the scene during an investigation into the sudden beating death of a black man (Mekhi Phifer) and, through flashbacks provided from the man's girl friend we learn that preppie Walter Wade Jr. ("American Psycho"'s remarkable Christian Bale) had provoked the guy by making racist remarks astoundingly unsubtle considering Wade's class and education. Shaft busts the perp, whose first utterance to the cop is "Do you know who my father is?" to which Shaft responds, " you?" Much of the story's script follows witty, easy-to-catch bon mots on this level, which is just part of the fun in store for the audience.

The movie moves along at a staggering pace that if a Thesaurus posited an antonym for "Waiting for Godot," this would be the choice. Not only is the writing first-rate for the genre, evoking predictably frequent merriment from its audience, the tempo brisk, the outdoor scenes taken in Brooklyn by photographer Donald E. Thorin authentic in look, but most important the performances joyfully elicited from Jackson, from Christian Bale, and especially from the multi-talented dancer and stage actor Jeffrey Wright as a comically vicious villain are right on the money.

Singleton draws solid work from an ensemble representing every shade of human personality, from the corrupt cops-on- the-take Jack Roselli (Dan Hedaya) and Jimmy Groves (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), determined to gun Shaft down and get their hands on some big bucks; from the affable but ditzy Rasaan (Busta Rhymes) who is there for Shaft when his driving skills are needed; and from the Vanessa Williams in the relatively bland role of narcotics officer Carmen.

Gratifying as Samuel L. Jackson is, decked out in a long leather jacket that virtually announces his wiseass attitude, even more so are the performances of Christian Bale as Walter Wade Jr. and especially Jeffrey Wright as Peoples Hernandez. Wright performs as the feudal lord of his mostly Puerto Rican neighborhood who in one of the movie's precious scenes tries to persuade the equally tough and wily Wade to line up some upscale white customers for his heroin trade through his connections and even to hang out with him in the posh neighborhoods and restaurants of Manhattan's Upper East Side. Peoples Hernandez has got to be "American Psycho"'s Patrick Bateman's major competitor for most complex and absorbing villain of the year as he shows various sides to his personality: his intense love for his mowed-down brother which leads him masochistically to inflict knife wounds on himself, his attention to an infant in his arms in his downscale, ramshackle apartment, his negotiating almost coyly with the preppie to give him access to the "best people" on the Upper East Side, and flat-out rage against Shaft against whom he ultimately focuses his vast energy.

While the cell phones and street gang attire remind us that the setting is contemporary, hip moviegoers will recognize a 70s cop-movie style to the production, which is backed up by a dynamic, funky soundtrack. Though a summer movie, this "Shaft" is blessed by a marriage of all the elements that make the genre fun: witty script, charismatic acting by the good guys and knaves alike, superlative lensing, and a pace that virtually dares any in the audience to fidget just once in their seats.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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