Samuel L. Jackson's vigilante take on the famous black badass cop fuels a lean, fast and undeniably entertaining remake.

Published June 16, 2000 3:19PM (EDT)

There's probably no way to enjoy "Shaft" with a good liberal conscience. As the renegade cop hero, the nephew of Richard Roundtree's original Shaft, Samuel L. Jackson metes out justice with his fists and gun in a way that would appall me if it were Clint Eastwood dishing out the punishment. And yet, good liberal that I am, I have to confess that I loved "Shaft." John Singleton's remake of the 1971 blaxploitation hit is lean, fast and undeniably entertaining.

The brutality increases as the movie goes on and Singleton falls into the right-wing sensibility that action movies are prone to. "Shaft" says that the laws and courts and the restrictions on police protect the scum and that the only way to clean things up is for a lone man to break the rules. That's the malarkey that "Dirty Harry" peddled in the same year the original "Shaft" came out. In fact, it only takes half of "Shaft" for the police detective hero to reach the point Harry Callahan did at the end of "Dirty Harry" and quit the force. Harry tossed his badge in the river; Shaft tosses his like a martial-arts weapon at a judge who gives bail to a racist killer.

So why isn't "Shaft" repugnant? Well, for one thing, Jackson, unlike Eastwood, suggests a human being. And unlike "Dirty Harry," "Shaft" (up until a final, sour wrong turn) knows it's a fantasy. The disreputable thrill of the movie lies in the reality that the fantasy takes off from. To put it bluntly: There's a charge in seeing a strong black man kicking ass in Rudy Giuliani's New York. And the wicked twist is that this strong black man is a cop. When Shaft busts a suspect in the chops for making a racist remark, it's as if the bullies and their usual targets have swapped places. That may be an indefensible thrill, but it's a real one. (Hizzoner certainly won't be pleased by Shaft's quip, "It's Giuliani time," as he straps on the firepower to shoot down the bad guys.)

But even as Singleton shamelessly exploits that part of the movie's appeal, he's smart enough never to let "Shaft" become divisive. At the preview screening I attended, I sat in the balcony, surrounded mostly by African-American and Latino moviegoers, with a couple of Italian guys sitting to my right. And we all seemed to be laughing and shouting at exactly the same parts.

Racially, the movie is very shrewdly balanced. The motor behind the plot is the murder of a young black man by the white racist son (Christian Bale) of a Manhattan real-estate tycoon. But having set up a racial murder, Singleton does something unexpected almost immediately by introducing us to the victim's grieving girlfriend, who is white. So is the woman Shaft has to protect, a bartender (Toni Collette) who witnessed the killing and who has been threatened and warned to keep her mouth shut. Corrupt cops were a staple of blaxploitaton movies, but the pair on the take here includes a black man. And when Bale decides he wants Collette tracked down and killed, he hires a Latino drug dealer (Jeffrey Wright) to do the job. Nobody's race gives him a premium on righteousness or evil here, and if that's as calculated as hell it's no less canny.

It's certainly a step up from the crude race baiting of the original "Shaft," where a cop determined to bring down the black hero is pointedly called "Lebowitz," and where the Mafia baddie calls Shaft a "nigger." The 1971 "Shaft" was the second movie directed by photographer Gordon Parks (who has a cameo in the new movie) and though his eye is apparent in the grimy authenticity of the New York locations, the movie is in every other way a sluggish piece of work. Singleton's remake is no model of storytelling. The script was written by novelist Richard Price (whose other screenplays include "Ransom" and "Life Lessons"), but then revised, reportedly at Price's displeasure, by Singleton and Shane Salerno, who took into account objections from Jackson as well. The various story threads get in the way of one another, and the two villains remain at odds while you're waiting for them to join forces (reportedly because Bale's part got trimmed as Wright's performance caused the filmmakers to give him more screen time). But at just over 90 minutes, "Shaft" has enough rude energy to bull its way through the rough spots.

The film isn't a special-effects extravaganza, and Singleton doesn't go in for the incoherent rapid editing that has become the action-movie standard. But it does have a visceral kick that the special-effects extravaganzas lined up for the rest of the summer are going to have to work pretty hard to top. It's not at all a sophisticated piece of filmmaking, so you definitely need to turn off some parts of your brain to respond to it. But its sheer balls-out bravado is often brutally funny.

Singleton does take notice of most of the human beings in front of his camera but, sadly, not of Vanessa Williams, as Shaft's partner, Carmen. Not only does she not have much of a role, but from the unflattering way she's shot you'd never know she's one of the most beautiful women in movies right now. It's commendable that Singleton allows Roundtree to reprise his role as the original Shaft as something other than an afterthought. And it's a pleasure to see Roundtree (who had a bout with breast cancer a few years back) looking so strappingly fit.

As a hood who owes some favors to Shaft, rapper Busta Rhymes proves himself an ably goofy second banana. But in sheer outrageousness, he's no match for Jeffrey Wright as drug lord Peoples. Wright suggests what might have happened if someone had been demented enough to cast Erik Rhodes (who played the Italian count in "Top Hat") as Scarface. The character is supposed to be Latino, but when you hear his accent -- which turns his words into indecipherable balls of sound, so that Tiger Woods comes out as "Ti-guh Woo" -- you know he's from no country anyone has yet discovered. Wright turns in a piece of ethnic caricature here that's far-out enough to leave questions of ethnicity behind. As the blaxploitaton sacrificial goat, the evil rich white guy, Bale rather remarkably works something authentic into his clichid role. His hollowed cheeks and narrow eyes convey the narcissistic frat-boy selfishness of every spoiled rich kid you've ever run into.

Jackson coasts through the movie on sass, sex appeal and attitude, although, disappointingly, all his sex takes place off-screen. His head shaved and shining, and his frame draped in long, luxurious black-leather Armani, Jackson gets laughs with his eyes, narrowing them to indicate that he's pissed off or allowing an evil gleam into them to signal that a wisecrack -- or a crack to the jaw -- is on the way. He's having too much fun for his swagger to be taken seriously. The audience laughs at Shaft's bursts of anger and that keeps the macho grandstanding in good-natured perspective.

But once again, Collette manages to give the best performance in any movie she appears in. It's not that she gets a hell of a lot to do. But from the moment she appears, her fear feels completely authentic and justified. Collette gives her small part an eloquent tenseness that makes you sit up and take notice. She's simply one of the most believable actors in movies right now.

"Shaft" is the type of picture where you're cued to laugh every time a baddie gets busted in the chops -- and the kind of spirited roughhousing bash where you actually do. It's a bit of primitive retributive justice that's shamefully satisfying. At its best, "Shaft" is as quick and absurdly cool as Isaac Hayes' familiar theme song. This slick racial revenge fantasy turns out to be -- of all things -- a movie that allows its audience the communal pleasure of going to the movies. Laughing with the people next to you as Shaft kicks both black and white butt, you can fantasize that Giuliani's New York is a small world after all.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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