Why remake this American classic? Samuel L. Jackson explains. Plus: Isaac Hayes on how he laid down his sexy score.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Published December 12, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

Directed by John Singleton
Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Jeffrey Wright, Vanessa L. Williams, Christian Bale, Toni Colette
Paramount; widescreen (2.35:1)
Extras: Trailers, cast and crew interviews, making-of featurette, music videos

John Singleton's updating of Gordon Parks' 1971 blaxploitation classic is by no means a great movie -- the pieces of the story are glued together rather crudely, and the picture has the generic action-movie freneticism that's so prevalent these days. But for sheer energy, it beats the original. Samuel L. Jackson doesn't have the wretched task of trying to be the same Shaft played by Richard Roundtree in 1971; instead, the story presents him as the original Shaft's nephew. Roundtree has a small role here as Uncle John Shaft, and one of the great jokes of the movie is that his coolness hasn't diminished a whit with age -- he's just as much of a babe magnet as ever.

Jackson may not be quite as cool as Roundtree, but he comes close, strutting around in his lithe, buttery Armani lambskin jacket and scowling like the bad (but principled) motherfucker he is. He's trying to nail a spoiled, white, rich kid (Christian Bale) who gleefully thinks he can get away with murdering a black man. A waitress who witnessed the crime (Toni Colette, in a typically deft performance) and a Dominican drug lord (Jeffrey Wright, in a hilarious but also at times shockingly stirring supporting role) get mixed up in the increasingly messy business. Screenwriters John Singleton, Richard Price and Shane Salerno give Jackson some terrific lines to pop off: When Bale asks Jackson disdainfully, "Do you know who my father is?" Jackson waits a beat and replies, "No. Do you?"

The DVD extras aren't particularly impressive. In the cast and crew interviews, Singleton and his actors don't go much further than simply reembroidering the characters' motivations, which are crystal clear if you've watched the movie with even just half of one eye open. Jackson does note that when he first read that "Shaft" was going to be remade, he wondered why. "Nothing wrong with the one we have. Who are they going to get to do that, anyway?" Two months later the screenplay landed on his desk and he jumped on it.

The best part of the extras is the segment of the making-of featurette, "Shaft: Still the Man," in which Isaac Hayes explains -- in that voice like black honey -- how he wrote the original "Shaft" theme (which, of course, also figures prominently in the new version). "I started with the 16th notes on the high-hat cymbal. And I said, 'Let's put a wah with it.'" And the rest, as they say, is history, the kind that you'd like to have as your personal soundtrack on a city street on a hot summer day.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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