Robert George is an editorial page writer
o, it doesn't have the greatest plot in the world. But it has Samuel L. Jackson, a few other outstanding performances and oh, yeah, a great soundtrack featuring the "black private dick who's the sex machine for all the chicks." So does it work?
There are many different ways that this remake/sequel could have collapsed. (And, if we are to believe all the press reports, the "Making of Shaft" might have made for even more exciting violence than what's up on the screen.) The original was a stand-out of the early '70s "blaxploitation" era, with more than a bit of over-the-top camp to help sustain it. It started out as just a popular movie among blacks, but then the propulsive Isaac Hayes "Theme from Shaft" (revived here) helped turn the movie into a crossover hit. Subsequent decades have increased the nostalgia quotient for both song and movie.
In certain ways, this Shaft could just as well as been the latest in the Lethal Weapon franchise. There is little plotwise that genuinely suggests that a true nugget of pop culture is being mined here. Lots of shoot-outs and car chases, of course. There are also at least two plot twists that work pretty well. But the wacka-wacka guitar in the musical score and the jagged scene fades give the movie a real retro feel. The opening credits make you think you're watching an old Starsky & Hutch or Charlie's Angels.
So, how do you update Shaft for the 21st century? Well, first, most of the sex is gone. There's a certain bow to political correctness here, an acknowledgment that that this is obviously not the free-love Seventies. There are more allusions to, than depictions of, actual casual sex. Jackson was meant to be John Shaft nephew of the original (in a role reprised by Richard Roundtree who, surprisingly, holds his own with Jackson in the few scenes in which they appear together).
While the plot is initiated by a psycho-racist yuppie named Walter Wade (Christian Bale), Jeffrey Wright as the drug-dealer-with-big dreams, Peoples Hernandez, nearly steals the show. While his Dominican accent could use some work, Wright's personality is overwhelming. From a sociological point, Hernandez's desire to enlist Wade as an "uptown" coke-runner has echoes of the scene in The Godfather where the families decide to flood the ghetto with drugs.
Of course, as the movie is set in New York City, it can be difficult to separate what is happening on screen with headlines of the last few years about alleged NYPD brutality. Make no mistake, what you will see in Shaft is definitely police brutality, but those upon whom the violence is meted out "deserve" it (in fact, one single mother gives information to Shaft in exchange for a serious beatdown on the drug-dealing lowlife trying to recruit her son). It would be interesting to see Al Sharpton and Rudy Giuliani "debate" the depiction of cops in this movie. (Don't hold your breath.)
But it eventually comes back to Samuel L. Jackson. He holds the movie together and makes the viewer think, "Well, come right down to it, he's baaad, but he's our baaad mutha..."
You know the rest.