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

Review by Steve Rhodes
3 stars out of 4

John Shaft is the coolest dude around, at least as portrayed with supreme confidence and an eminently likeable bravado by Samuel L. Jackson. Dressed in his best Armani outfits, Jackson is so self-assured that he slightly underplays his part and still rules the roost.

As directed by John Singleton (ROSEWOOD), the remake of SHAFT far surpasses the original, which starred Richard Roundtree. (In this remake, Roundtree is given a nice small part as Uncle John Shaft.)

The movie is a perfect summer film, completely enjoyable with lots of action. Like the old westerns, this popcorn movie features a good guy who kills bad guys left and right without worrying about any rules. Criminals in SHAFT don't have any Miranda rights or any other rights for that matter. The film's body count is in the dozens since Shaft doesn't shoot to wound, and he certainly doesn't miss.

When you mention SHAFT, most people just think of its theme music, which this remake uses to advantage. Besides opening with the theme to get us in the mood, it cuts back to it periodically to reenergize us. Of course, with action this lively, it isn't clear that we ever need our batteries recharged.

The simple plot has two major threads. In the opening one, the racist son (Walter Wade, Jr.) of a wealthy New York developer kills a black guy outside of a bar in an unprovoked attack. Christian Bale, last seen chillingly as Patrick Bateman in AMERICAN PSYCHO, is perfectly cast as Walter, a depraved preppie. Since Bale is so good at playing nefarious characters, my single complaint about the picture is that we did not get to see more of Walter's villainy. (Toni Collette does a nice turn as a scared, reluctant witness who is the only one to see the murder.)

The other and more effective thread concerns a Puerto Rican drug kingpin named Peoples Hernandez, whom Shaft ridicules as being the king of three blocks. Peoples and his large gang end up in a war with Shaft. (Want to place your bets on that match-up?) Peoples is played by an unrecognizable Jeffrey Wright, whose most famous role was as an artist in BASQUIAT. Wright delivers a fascinating performance that manages to become even more mesmerizing by his Godfather-like speech. With a thick accent and talking like he has marbles in his mouth, Wright crafts a unique character. Looking like a prissy wimp, Peoples is nonetheless a completely vicious killer, who has no compunction in throwing people out of windows or stabbing them with ice picks. Don't be surprised if Wright is talked up for an Oscar nomination for his supporting role.

A hero of working-class cops and of good citizens everywhere, Shaft risks everything in his pursuit of vigilante justice. Actually Shaft respects the law and wants most of all to bring Walter to trial. But along the way, if dozens of criminals have to die, well that's the way it is in the Old West or in the ghetto.

Some movies stretch our imagination and build our intellect. Some just give us a good old-fashioned time at the theater. SHAFT is happy just to do the latter. SHAFT may not tax your brain, but it will tickle your funny bone and give you ample opportunity to cheer the good guys and hiss the bad. It's pure, unadulterated fun.

SHAFT runs 1:39. It is rated R for strong violence and language and would be acceptable for older teenagers.

Copyright 2000 Steve Rhodes

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