Thursday, November 13, 2008


If Paramount Pictures plans to produce a sequel to the new "Shaft," then they need to develop a stronger storyline and provide a bolder villain who can go the distance with "the cat who won't cop out when there is danger all about." Were it not for its blazing gunplay and blistering profanity, this second-rate but serviceable update of Gordon Park's "Shaft" would resemble an average episode of "NYPD Blue." The action scenes in director John Singleton's "Shaft" lack the bravura of the Richard Roundtree originals. Aside from an occasionally memorable one-liner, the dialogue pales by comparison with the lingo contrived by the late Oscar winning scenarist Ernest Tidyman. (Not only did Tidyman forge the "Shaft" character in a series of novels and two scripts, but he also penned the screenplay for director William Friedkin's "The French Connection!") The bankrupt quality in the creative storytelling process with "Shaft" (2000) boils down to its half-baked premise. No, Samuel L. Jackson doesn't replace Richard Roundtree as the seminal black private eye. Instead, he plays Shaft's nephew! Sounds like an urban contemporary alternative to "The Mask of Zorro!" Basically, "Shaft" focuses on hate crime. The racist son of a white real estate tycoon beats an unarmed African-American, Trey Howard (Mekhi Phifer of "Higher Learning"), to death outside an elite New York City restaurant. A white bartender on a cigarette break, Diane Palmieri (a frumpy Toni Collette of "The Sixth Sense"), witnesses the murder from across the street. Walter Wade Jr. (creepy Christian Bale of "American Psycho") threatens her about testifying against him in court. When Detective John Shaft" (Samuel L. Jackson of "Pulp Fiction") shows up in his stylist Armani leather trench coat, he punches the despicable Wade in the face twice, then devotes himself to tracking down the scared barkeep. He wants to sink Wade Jr., with Diane's testimony. Initially, Singleton characterizes Samuel L. Jackson's Shaft in one illuminating long shot that shows him striding up a street against on-coming traffic. Although Jackson's Shaft is the nephew to Roundtree's Shaft, he handles himself more like Inspector Harry Callahan's half-brother! Unfortunately, for Shaft, once Wade makes bail, the obnoxious anus skips town for sanctuary in far-off Switzerland. According to Wade in a telephone call to his nemesis, he made bail because of the two blows that Shaft dealt him that broke his nose. Meanwhile, in a move reminiscent of the Burt Reynolds' classic "Sharkey's Machine," Shaft finds himself reassigned from homicide to narcotics. Singleton reinvents Shaft as a volatile loose cannon on deck. After one of many drug busts, our reckless hero confronts a pint-sized "Scarface" wannabe, Peoples Hernandez (the impeccable Jeffry Wright of "Basquiat"), and locks the ice-pick toting drug dealer up on a technicality when the witless thug touches his bullet-proof vest.

Two years elapses, and Wade tries to sneak back into Gotham, only to be nabbed as he gets off his plane by Shaft. Shaft is not the only person who cannot figure out why Wade returned. The "Shaft" scenarists never furnish a reasonable explanation why such a worthless prick like Wade Jr., would come back to stand trial. His father and he tolerate each other, and he despises his old man's mistress. Such an obvious oversight reflects poorly on Singleton and his scripters. When the Honorable Dennis Bradford (Pat Hingle of "Hang'em High") releases Wade for a second time, Shaft savors a "Dirty Harry" moment. Defiantly, he hurls his N.Y.P.D. shield like a kung fu weapon so that it embeds itself in the wall inches from the judge's head. Easily, this is the beset single moment in "Shaft." Quitting the force (like hundreds of other renegade Hollywood cops) Shaft resolves to find Diane.

Christian Bale and Jeffry Wright make convincingly reptilian villains, but they emerge as narrative welterweights that don't stand a snowball's chance in hell against a heavyweight like Samuel L. Jackson's "Shaft." What "Shaft" desperately needs but cannot conjure up is a bold adversary like the villains in Gordon Park's "Shaft" & "Shaft's Big Score" and John Guillermin's "Shaft in Africa." When our villains argue, Singleton exposes how essentially weak they are compared to Shaft. Neither Wade nor the vertically challenged Peoples pose much of a threat to Shaft. "Eraser" heroine Vanessa Williams registers credibly as a tough-minded police woman who backs up Shaft in a tight spot. Dependable Dan Hedaya plays another crooked cop in the vein of the devious policeman that he portrayed in Norman Jewison's "The Hurricane." Ostensibly, "Shaft" unfolds as a gritty, authentic, but incredibly prosaic police procedural thriller with no romantic diversions. Everything in "Shaft" has been done before and done better. The filmmakers break no new ground dramatically or in terms of action stunts. Writer & director John Singleton of "Boyz N the Hood" and his scenarists Richard Price of "Clockers" and Shane Salerno of "Armageddon" let two banal subplots masquerade as the main plot. Action mystery thrillers are defined by the greed of the villain. The "Shaft" villains are mindless miscreants. Singleton combines them but together, they fail to substitute for a sturdy villain.

Credit the "Shaft" producers for having the good sense not to tamper with Isaac Hayes' immortal theme song. British composer David Arnold of "Tomorrow Never Dies" reprises elements of Hayes' Academy Award winning music throughout the action for maximum effect and succeeds without having to alter the tracks. The "Shaft" producers should be applauded also for giving the original "Shaft"—Richard Roundtree—a few scenes to recreate his groundbreaking blaxploitation character. Nevertheless, compared with the earlier "Shaft" epics, the new "Shaft" struggles lamely to make up for its dire lack of romance and larger-than-life villains. Jackson delivers an abrasive, often ballistic performance as the title hero and is very convincing. Ultimately, the premise that the new "Shaft" has to have the same name of his uncle and be a cop (even an ex-cop) shows how short-sighted the producers were when they decided to revive the "Shaft" franchise.

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