USA/Germany 2000

Film still for Shaft

Reviewed by Andrew O\'Hehir


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

New York, the present. John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson), a police detective, investigates the murder of a young black man outside a nightclub. The obvious suspect is Walter Wade Jr (Christian Bale), son of a white billionaire. Shaft arrests Wade, who skips bail and flees to Europe. Diane (Toni Collette), a waitress at the club who witnessed the killing, also disappears.

Two years pass. Wade returns from Europe to face the murder charge. While in jail, he meets Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright), a drug lord arrested by Shaft and his partner Carmen (Vanessa Williams). When Wade is granted bail, Shaft quits the police force in anger. Worried that Shaft will find Diane, Wade approaches Hernandez and asks him to kill her. But when Wade comes to Harlem with $40,000 for Hernandez, Shaft and an accomplice steal the money and plant it on two corrupt cops who work for Hernandez, making it appear they stole it. Shaft finds Diane, but so does Hernandez. In the ensuing shoot-out, most of Hernandez's crew are killed, but he, Shaft and Diane escape alive. Shaft hides Diane in the apartment of Rasaan (Busta Rhymes), his sidekick and driver. Another shoot-out and car chase end with Shaft killing Hernandez. Diane is injured but survives to testify against Wade. But the murder victim's mother kills Wade outside the courthouse.


What sense would one make of John Singleton's erratic Shaft remake if gossip magazines had not helpfully explained that the production was plagued by infighting between the director, co-writer Richard Price and star Samuel L. Jackson? My own theory is that Singleton (Boyz N the Hood) has carried his loyalty to the blaxploitation genre of the 70s to an illogical extreme, emulating the nonsensical plotting and incomprehensible scenes of violence of many films of that era. The (barely) updated musical theme by Isaac Hayes remains enjoyable, and Jackson, as the new Shaft, cuts a dashing figure in his shades and black Armani leathers. But Gordon Parks' 1971 film, however awkward it may appear in hindsight, struck audiences at the time as both daring and angry, a standard this Shaft - episodic, fatally confused, only intermittently entertaining - fails to live up to.

Given the atmosphere of growing concern over police abuse of minority citizens in US cities, especially New York, there were bound to be some uneasy moments in this story about a cop, the original Shaft's nephew, who feels "too black for the uniform, too blue for the brothers." Singleton and company never address this issue directly; instead, they work in a cryptic reference to the real-world case of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who was brutalised in a New York station house, and generally depict their policeman hero and his colleagues as reckless and incompetent thugs. After arresting drug lord Hernandez, Shaft warns him to expect an "ass-whipping" on the way to the station. Later he viciously beats a teenage drug-dealer merely to ingratiate himself with a potential informant. As Shaft is pistol-whipping this youth, a white patrolman drives by. He doesn't intervene in the assault; a long look passes between him and Shaft before the cop nods and departs. Ironically, while it is true that undercover police use codes to identify themselves on the streets, this episode echoes one that ended quite differently a few years ago in New York when a black undercover cop pursuing a suspect was shot by a white officer who took him for an armed felon.

Shaft's angry resignation from the police after racist killer Wade's second bail hearing is undoubtedly meant to show that he's had enough of the legal system, but it makes little sense in context. Wade has voluntarily returned from overseas to stand trial; that he is released on bail should surprise no one. Similarly, the final plot twist, in which the victim's saintly, grey-haired mother avenges herself on Wade, can be read as symbolising African-Americans' legitimate mistrust of the US judicial system. But it also renders Shaft's labours meaningless: he has pursued, cajoled and protected witness Diane, and killed Hernandez and virtually his entire family - all, it seems, for nothing.

Just as the movie itself feels jittery and unfocused, Jackson himself never settles into the role, for all his feline grace and easygoing charm. The screenplay (credited to Singleton, Price and Shane Salerno) gives him little time to relax between action scenes, but one utterly irrelevant mood piece set in Harlem's historic Lenox Lounge gives us just a taste of how much fun Shaft could have been. Parks and Richard Roundtree (here, reprising the title role of the original film) put in appearances, and Jackson seems suddenly in his element, half-ironically purring at a comely waitress: "It's my duty to please the booty." (Trust me, British readers, it rhymes.)

Throughout, Singleton never seems sure whether he wants a high-style spectacle or down-at-heels realism in the 70s tradition, so the film lacks not only a consistent visual tone but a well-defined sense of time and place. Instead, Shaft simply ends up looking cheaper than any big-budget Hollywood entertainment should. It will draw audiences based on the irreducible charisma of its star, but it does no favours to him, to its one-time-wunderkind director, or to the legacy of Parks' film, for all its flaws a true landmark in American popular cinema.


John Singleton
Scott Rudin
John Singleton
Richard Price
John Singleton
Shane Salerno
John Singleton
Shane Salerno
Based on the novel by Ernest Tidyman
Based on the motion picture Shaft (1971)
Director of Photography
Donald E. Thorin
John Bloom
Antonia Van Drimmelen
Production Designer
Patrizia von Brandenstein
David Arnold
Isaac Hayes
©MFP Munich Film Partners GmbH & Co. Shaft Productions KG
Production Companies
Paramout Pictures presents a Scott Rudin/New Deal production
In association with MFP Munich Film Partners GmbH & Co. Shaft Productions KG
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011