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

Review by John Beachem
1½ stars out of 4

John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) is back after a 19 year hiatus. This time his enemy is a racist young punk named Walter Williams (Christian Bale), who killed a young black man and skipped off to Europe on bail. Now, two years later, Walter has turned up again and Shaft hasn't forgotten him. Walter's father, a rich real-estate agent, has seen to it that no one can pin anything on his son by scaring the only witness out of her mind and causing her to run. The witness is a waitress named Diane (Toni Collette), who saw the whole thing happen. Now Shaft has to track her down before the case goes to trial again. Assisting him are a narcotics officer named Carmen (Vanessa Williams), an unusual friend named Rasaan (Busta Rhymes) and his uncle, John Shaft (Richard Roundtree). Unfortunately for Shaft, Walter has a little help too, which comes from the local drug lord, Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright). Now the two groups are in a race against time to find Diane, Shaft's group so she can testify, and Walter's group to try and silence her for good.

Okay, before everyone stones me for my low rating of this movie, let me say that I really enjoyed 1971's "Shaft". That version had an interesting plot, adept direction, and Shaft was a regular guy who we could relate to in some way. This version has none of these qualities. Singleton, who showed at least a trace of promise back in 1997 when he directed "Rosewood", seems to have lost his directing abilities. The plot, in this version, consists of nothing more than watching Shaft beat people up while delivering entertaining dialogue (my favorite line was: "Don't make me chase you more than fifty yards!"). Shaft was a normal guy back in 1997, but now he's been turned into some kind of super hero. I don't think I saw him so much as run out of breath throughout the film, much less face an opponent who could match up to him in a fight. I also found it puzzling and a little annoying that there was no womanizing on the part of Shaft in this version. I know, that sounds odd, but think about it - Richard Roundtree's Shaft was a cool, suave woman magnet. I don't even remember seeing Jackson's Shaft kiss a girl. It felt a little odd watching "Shaft" with all the sex sapped out of it.

It's not easy for an actor to carry an entire movie on his shoulders. Denzel Washington did it with "The Hurricane" and Angelina Jolie almost pulled it off in "Girl: Interrupted". Samuel L. Jackson is asked to do just this in "Shaft", but the script is too much of a dud for even this great actor to manage it. Don't get me wrong, it's a blast watching Samuel L. Jackson as the ultimate bad a**, but it's not enough to keep a movie going for long. The rest of the cast (with the exception of Christian Bale) does nothing to help Jackson carry the load, but I don't think they'd have been much help anyway. Richard Roundtree has little more than a cameo appearance, which is too bad since the audience went nuts the moment he showed up on screen. Vanessa Williams ("Soul Food") may not be the world's greatest actress, but she certainly deserved more screen time than she got here. Then there's poor Dan Hedaya ("Dick"), who shows up as a fellow officer, and looks woefully out of place throughout the film. Last we have Christian Bale, who was brilliant in "American Psycho", yet adds nothing to this film. Don't get me wrong, he turns in a great performance, but he plays a pathetic excuse for a villain. He's whiny and insecure and clearly no match for Shaft. The film's real villain is Peoples (or the script writers, depending on how you want to look at it), but he's not much more threatening than Walter.

I think one of the most irritating things about this new "Shaft" is that it plays more like a video game than a movie. The fight scenes go as follows: Shaft opens a door, guy jumps out, Shaft shoots him; Shaft turns a corner, guys jump out, Shaft shoots them. This got old and tedious after about ten minutes. In fact, that's the biggest problem with this movie; the entire thing felt old and tedious. Everything, from all the stereo-typical characters to the out of place soundtrack (except for the great Isaac Hayes score of course), felt old and dated, despite Singleton's attempts to change Shaft for the new millenium. Then there's the film's ending, which I'm obviously not going to go into in great detail, but after the movie ended I sat and pondered whether it was anti-climactic or realistic. I decided that since I had to think about it that made it anti-climactic, but you may disagree. So overall, what do I think of the new "Shaft" movie? I think the man should have stayed in the '70s. "Shaft" runs only 99 minutes, but it feels quite a bit longer. I'd recommend it only to people who worship the ground Samuel L. Jackson walks on (not that I can blame them for that) and give it two and a half out of five stars.

Copyright 2000 John Beachem

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