This movie gets four stars just for coolness. Samuel L. Jackson, the Armani leather coat, and the Oscar-winning theme song are a match made in heaven, and it is just plain summer-popcorn-movie fun to see them all work it together.
This Shaft goes back further than the original Shaft movie to the days of the cool, ironic, been-there, seen-that, but still a man of integrity at heart characters that Humphrey Bogart played in movies like “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep,” and before that to the sagas of knights and quests and damsels in distress. They will always be outsiders, cleaning up the messes of the insiders, and they will always be stronger, smarter, and more loyal than the people they help. They are always too honest to be able to get along with anyone. Even the law enforcers have to cut too many corners and they never pick the right corners to cut.
What made the original “Shaft” so galvanizing was the notion of a black man in this role, a man who wasn’t trying to impress Spencer Tracy or Rod Steiger as Sidney Poitier was doing in mainstream Hollywood movies of that era. He was not trying to get what whites had. He was completely satisfied living within the black world, and he would take on even a white man who threatened it. In movie terms, he was Malcolm X to Poitier’s Martin Luther King. This was deeply threatening, but deeply exciting, too.
And it was new in a way it can never be new again. The challenge was creating a new version that would be just as electrifying although it was released in a different environment.
Director John Singleton, whose “Furious” character in “Boyz N the Hood” shared a lot of Shaft’s outlook, has updated the movie and the character. This is a story about the nephew of the original Shaft (played again in this movie by Richard Roundtree), who is so far from his private detective uncle’s commitment to independence that he is a policeman. But when a corrupt system lets a rich racist murderer jump bail, Shaft throws his badge at the judge like a ninja weapon and goes out on the street to see that justice is done.
The script is uneven and filled with holes, showing evidence of reported on-set disagreements between the producer, director, and star. Reportedly, too, Jeffrey Wright’s performance as drug dealer Peoples Hernandez was so exciting that the movie was reworked to give him more screen time. That is easy to believe, because he is electrifying. That contributes, however, to the difficulty in managing all the plot threads. Efforts to bring the two bad guys together, the Dominican drug dealer and the preppy racist (Christian Bale) may provide some interesting moments, especially when the drug dealer starts networking in a holding cell, asking the preppy for his business card, but it slows the story down.
But Singleton knows that when things waver, all he has to do is cut back to Jackson and the theme song to keep the audience happy, and it works remarkably well.
Parents should know that there is incessant use of the f-word and graphic violence, including self-inflicted ice-pick wounds and lots of punching and shooting. A character is blatantly racist and another is a drug dealer. Especially troubling is a conclusion that is surprisingly supportive of vigilante-style solutions, despite indications that even Shaft believes that this time the system will result in justice.
Families who see this movie should talk about how Shaft knows when to follow the rules and when to break them, and what would happen if someone with a less perfectly honed sense of justice were to break as many rules (and noses) as Shaft does.
People who like this movie might enjoy seeing the original to compare the way that different directors, different times, and different budgets change the way the story is told.