Film Reviews

Getting the Shaft

Strip the movie of its brand name, mute the Isaac Hayes theme song that's still icebox cool, and John Singleton's Shaft doesn't even qualify as a distant cousin to Gordon Parks' 1971 original--much less Ernest Tidyman's 1970 novel, on which the franchise is based. To reiterate a point made by Samuel L. Jackson in the current Entertainment Weekly: Which part of the song didn't Singleton and co-screenwriters Richard Price and Shane Salerno understand? Jackson's John Shaft is neither a black private dick nor a sex machine to all the chicks; he is, in fact, a cop whose sole pickup is a female bartender who looks one tooth short of a full head, and he delivers the come-on like it's a joke, something beneath him ("It's my duty to please that booty"). Jackson may bear the family name--he is, indeed, the nephew of Richard Roundtree's original gangsta, John Shaft--but the resemblance stops there. Hell, it doesn't even start there.

Where Parks' film was fun and funky, an up-yours-baby manifesto disguised as populist entertainment, Singleton's version is cynical and silly--one long set-up to a closing scene that promises, or threatens, a sequel. It's an ad campaign for itself, a poster brought to life: Jackson, head shorn and eyes burning, walking through New York as his Armani leathers stream behind him like Batman's cape. Even if one didn't know this film was plagued by on-set problems--Singleton, Jackson, and producer Scott Rudin fought violently and publicly over, among many things, Price's script--those difficulties make themselves known on screen. (Jackson recently told a group of reporters "that I refused to say that white man's lines," referring to Price, though his comments come off as disingenuous: He had no trouble playing a cop spouting Price's words on 1995's Kiss of Death, and besides, Ernest Tidyman was white.) Singleton's Shaft has no rhythm; every time it gets going, it misses a beat. Then 15 others.

To even attempt to recount its plot is to wind up tangled and confused, no doubt because a good chunk of the film wound up on the cutting-room floor; the DVD will likely contain enough deleted scenes to allow the devoted and confused to piece together the puzzle. It begins at the scene of a crime: A black man (Mekhi Phifer) lies on the concrete outside a bar, his head bashed in. Inside, rich white boy Walter Wade (Christian Bale, still playing an American psycho) talks into a phone, plotting his escape. But Shaft, on the scene, can't help but notice the blood on Walter's hand; the audience, in turn, can't help but notice the lawn jockey over Shaft's shoulder (a rare sly moment). He arrests Walter, but not before popping the "racist bastard" twice on the nose. If anything, this Shaft is Dirty Harry, a vigilante cop hiding behind a badge.

Walter, of course, gets off and takes refuge in Switzerland; Shaft, meanwhile, has been transferred to narcotics, where he winds up busting the drug dealer Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright, so over the top that he barely touches the ground) on charges so shaky, they render the rest of the film just to the left of implausible. The same day he pops Peoples, Walter arrives back in the country--and Shaft's there to greet him on the runway. Walter and Peoples wind up sharing a cell for a moment, and they strike up an unlikely alliance: The rich kid needs a witness to his crime (a weepy Toni Collette) killed, and the drug dealer needs a rich white boy to expand his business on the Upper West Side. Toss in a couple of dirty cops (Dan Hedaya and Ruben Santiago-Hudson) and Shaft's de facto valet (Busta Rhymes, blessed comic relief), and you've got a sadistic cop tale very oft told.

That Shaft turns in his badge (by flinging it at a corrupt judge, a scene that feels somehow less potent than it does in the trailer) early on is a moot point: His buddies on the force help him track down the witness to the crime (indeed, Vanessa Williams, playing Det. Carmen Velasquez, seemingly never leaves his side), and Shaft guns down a good two dozen bad guys without ever once getting hauled in or even hassled by the cops. He's a walking crime spree and, worse still, a lousy cop: Shaft gets tailed more often than a donkey at a 5-year-old's birthday party. The bad guys need only follow Shaft to find whoever they're looking for; he's better than a road map.

To play compare-and-contrast between Parks' and Singleton's films would be a waste of time; they're no more alike than children from different parents. Surely, the only reason Singleton even lifted the name was to begin a franchise without having to actually create one. The name Shaft is nothing but shorthand now, and Singleton appropriates the first film's baggage to make his own sleek, surface cop thriller. That he chose to ignore the original's themes, much less its wry plot, is his greatest undoing.

The original novel, written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Ernest Tidyman (he penned The French Connection), reads like Raymond Chandler sharing a Parliament with Chester Himes. In the book, Shaft wasn't a smooth-talking brotherman; he didn't use the word "baby" like a period at the end of every sentence. He was a tough guy, "a black man made of muscle and ice" who'd kill black or white, it made no difference. Like Tidyman's Popeye Doyle, Shaft had no punch lines, only punches; he didn't smile so much as he grimaced; and he took allies and lovers only when they served his purpose. He cared little about the race war bubbling just beneath Harlem's rumbling surface. Shaft was his own Existential army.

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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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