review by Gregory Avery, 16 June 2000

There's nothing really wrong with the new film version of Shaft, but once the boom-boom bang-bang start was over, I got a sinking feeling that I'd seen this all before, because I have -- on countless, competently mediocre action shows that you can see any night, on any channel of your cable TV system. Maybe, until they come up with a new way to do them, there should be a moratorium called on action films, but I know that's probably like bellowing lines from King Lear to the cows in the field.

The director John Singleton and his co-screenwriters, Richard Price and Shane Salerno, have set their story in a New York City where the racial divisions aren't as belligerently defined as they were thirty years ago, but they're still there, invisible, and just as volatile when set off. Instead of a kidnapped mobster's daughter, Shaft must now find a woman, a waitress (Toni Collette) who's gone into hiding after witnessing a hate crime perpetrated by an amoral rich kid (Christian Bale, who's got to get into some different movies, after this one and American Psycho).

There are some good moments -- a scene with Collette where her character sounds more scared of the fact that she couldn't move when someone intimidates and threatens her than by the intimidation itself; Jeffrey Wright, as a Latino gang leader with a strong sense of "cinco familia," getting so incensed and worked-up over something that he starts jabbing his chest with the point of an ice pick without seeming to know it; a short, sharp jolt delivered by the otherwise beautifully quiet character played by Lynne Thigpen. Singleton stages and handles the action scenes so that they're tough, but he's not out to gloat over the bloodshed and violence, giving the acts more significance and meaning.

And Samuel L. Jackson does cut the best figure in an Armani coat since Kevin Costner in The Untouchables. But he also delivers a complex, fully-realized characterization in the film, one of a person who becomes as intensely concerned over making people pay for their deeds as he is over giving other people compassion, someone you wouldn't want to mess with but who's ready to back you up if you need help, someone who plays by his own code (even if it borders on the mercenary, at times) but who also retains a certain sense of integrity. Jackson plays not only a hero, but a thinking hero, and he can convey more with a look than most actors can do with their entire bodies.

There is also a wonderful "pas de trois" moment where Jackson, Richard Roundtree (playing a character referred to as "Uncle John" by Jackson's character) and Gordon Parks, the great still photographer who turned film director and helmed the first Shaft movie, all come in contact with each other at a local hangout. But, even so, there's still a nagging feeling about the film. There's definitely room enough for a well-made action picture (certainly one that lasts at a reasonable running length -- this one blessedly comes in at ninety-eight minutes, which is cause for celebration enough). But with the caliber of talent involved, there still should have been something more.

Directed by:
John Singleton

Samuel L. Jackson
Vanessa Williams
Jeffrey Wright
Toni Collette
Christian Bale
Busta Rhymes
Dan Hedaya 
Lynne Thigpen
Richard Roundtree

Written by:
Richard Price

Based on the 
Novel by:
Ernest Tidyman




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