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
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