Cinematically speaking, Gordon Parks' original 1971 Shaft is not a great film. A bit slow at times and more than a little rough around the edges as it builds to its climactic explosion of violent action, this spirited but formulaic yarn that initially brought Ernest Tidyman's "black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks" to the big screen hardly qualifies as groundbreaking filmmaking.
Yet nearly 30 years after its original release--and long after the genre it spawned, "blaxploitation," died with that decade--the 1971 Shaft remains an extremely entertaining watch, never having completely escaped pop culture consciousness. The reason for this is the same one that explains the film's connection with moviegoers far beyond the target African-American audience: the title character of John Shaft. While the fact that the strong, smart, virile, and superbly suave Shaft is black is the primary factor for his historical and cultural significance, his broad-based appeal stems from an idea that transcends race: he is comfortable, confident, and proud about who he is, and anyone who had a problem with that could simply kiss his ass.
This fact also explains why John Singleton's Y2G revival of John Shaft is as enjoyable as it is. Much like the film that started the franchise, this Shaft's plot doesn't score points in the originality department, but the energy level and smooth attitude distinguishes it from standard crime thrillers.
Contrary to what has been reported over the past few months, this Shaft is not a remake of the original film, but more of a sequel/spinoff. The star audiences know and love from the original film and its first two sequels (1972's Shaft's Big Score! and 1973's Shaft in Africa), Richard Roundtree, once again plays John Shaft, who still runs a private investigation firm in New York City. However, the focus of the film lies on his same-named nephew (Samuel L. Jackson), who, as the film begins, is a cop whose take-no-crap demeanor constantly leaves him at odds with his superiors. When a privileged young man named Walter Wade Jr. (Christian Bale) accused of a brutal, racially-motivated murder is allowed to be released on bail, a disgusted Shaft leaves the force and decides to take matters into his own hands as a P.I.
But that's easier said than done, for also standing in the way of Shaft and his way of justice is Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright), a Dominican gangster who is hired by Walter to rub out waitress Diane Palmieri (Toni Collette), the only eyewitness to his crime. Peoples--or, rather, Wright is also the big obstacle in Jackson's way toward commanding this film. Peoples is more of an outrageous comic character for most of the running time, and Wright is insanely funny during these stages. However, he isn't so funny as make the character come off as goofy and buffoonish, and Peoples' eventual turn to more serious villainy is seamless and believable (which probably would not have been the case had he been played by original casting choice John Leguizamo, who bowed out before filming). It's no easy task to steal a film from the Jackson (who is his usual captivating, charismatic self here), but that's exactly what Wright does--and makes it seem effortless.
Then again, with such a talented ensemble surrounding him, it is not too surprising that Jackson's impressive star turn doesn't quite tower over the rest; he is strongly complemented not only by Wright but all his other co-stars. Bale has already proven his ability to play an uppity killer in American Psycho, so it only follows that his performance as a similar, less exaggerated character would be spot-on. Collette lends the film some convincing and welcome dramatic weight as the frightened, conflicted Diane. Busta Rhymes brings some good laughs as Shaft's sidekick Rasaan. Registering not as strongly--but through no fault of their own--are Vanessa Williams (as tough
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