Getting the Shaft

Singleton's bad mutha is just that, so shut yo' mouth

When Tidyman adapted his book for Parks' film, he turned an inner monologue into a stream of one-liners ("Where the hell you going?" "To get laid, what about you?"), and the revolutionary pulp, in time, would reduce to camp. Still, there's no disputing the power of the first film: Richard Roundtree, who had never starred in a film, was among the few men in history who went from Afro Sheen model to role model in the time it took to finish a bucket of popcorn. Never mind that Roundtree acted like a man used to posing (even his laughs seemed to come off cue cards); he spoke with his gait, with the leather jacket that concealed him from head to toe, and with a self-amused smirk. He was so identified with the role, he couldn't escape it: Roundtree appeared in two film sequels and, finally, in the tepid 1973-'74 TV series.

His small role here as Uncle John is a slap on the back followed by a kick in the face. He appears in a bar scene (with a hidden Gordon Parks), then is reduced to furniture; the most he does is wag his finger and shake his head, offering his nephew unheeded advice. (Uncle John is far more cynical than his nephew, who can't believe the system would free Walter.) But the audience adores Roundtree: A recent screening audience seemed to swell up whenever he appeared, and a scene in which he exits a bar with two honeys under his arms received the warmest laugh. Fact is, Roundtree could probably make a viable Shaft even now: At 57, he's only six years older than Jackson, and he exudes a calm, knowing cool in the few seconds he does get on screen.

Jackson's such an obvious choice as Shaft that he seems almost redundant. He's played this character so often (Pulp Fiction, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Jackie Brown) that his charisma is just a reflection off his shiny leather jackets and bald pate. Worse, Jeffrey Wright plays Peoples like an extra in the road company of Scarface: His accent renders half his lines unintelligible, and the other half sound like some variation on, "Jew wun in'resin mufu." Turns out Wright didn't have a problem saying Price's lines. He just had trouble pronouncing them.

Short on Shaft: Samuel Jackson and Richard Roundtree are Shaft. Or...is Shaft. Hmm.
Short on Shaft: Samuel Jackson and Richard Roundtree are Shaft. Or...is Shaft. Hmm.

Details

Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Vanessa Williams, Jeffrey Wright, Christian Bale, Toni Collette, and Busta Rhymes.

Release Date:
June 16

Official site

Directed by John Singleton

Story by John Singleton and Shane Salerno; screenplay by Singleton, Salerno, and Richard Price. Based on characters created by Ernest Tidyman.

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