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Flatfoot 'Shaft'

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 16, 2000


    'Shaft' Samuel L. Jackson stars as "Shaft." (Paramount)
"Who's the black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks?"


Not in this splashy-but-empty remake he isn't.

Alas, the machine is idling, and even Vanessa Williams can't seem to turn it on. The titillating credits, with their flashes of moist flesh, are only a tease. And what, after all, is an action-adventure without a love interest?

It's a movie without spirit, stuck with a hero (Samuel L. Jackson) without heart and a villain without teeth. Without a girl, how's the two-fisted, piece-toting, quip-mouthed lead going to show his vulnerable side? How's the bad guy going to manipulate the good guy?

Shoot'em-ups have only two plot lines--the bang-bang and the kiss-kiss. And with only one of those, there's not enough story to carry the movie, especially one as thinly characterized as this John Singleton remake.

Gordon Parks's groundbreaking 1971 original introduced audiences to the man who wasn't coming to dinner, a sexy, street-smart, sharp-dressing super-hero who was black and proud. Singleton's version offers 100 minutes of carefully calculated multiethnic butt-kicking. The John Woo-zy shootouts have their pulse-raising pluses, and the display of armaments--Glocks, Uzis and assault rifles are favored--is sure to put an itch in the trigger fingers of NRA members.

However, Singleton's pimp-mobile of a movie also lacks the original's sociopolitical relevance. That "Shaft" made a point; this one is strictly a mainstream summer distraction. It draws energy not from the Zeitgeist but from Isaac Hayes's classically irresistible Oscar-winning score and the audience's affection for the '70s pop icon.

The story, written by Richard Price ("Ransom"), then doctored by Shane Salerno and Singleton, has engaging moments but guides the audience down a blind alley and into a brick wall. This time around, we follow the blaxploits of John Shaft, a police detective mentored by his uncle, John Shaft (Richard Roundtree, reprising his role). Like his uncle, Shaft the Second doggedly pursues his quarry: Walter Wade (Christian Bale), a white racist who murders an African American student. (Like so many of our vilest criminals, Walter is an empowered Ivy Leaguer with a grand future ahead of him.)

Although Shaft manages to capture Walter, the evildoer posts bail and leaves the country. Shaft is given a second chance when the murderous little brat returns to the States for no discernible reason other than advancing the plot.

When it looks as if Walter's going to get away with murder a second time, Shaft loses faith in the justice system, quits the New York City police force and, with help from his funny sidekick (Busta Rhymes) and his former partner (Williams), continues his quest for the killer, along with the crime's only witness (Toni Collette) and the Dominican drug peddler (Jeffrey Wright) who's been hired to whack her.

Shaft's bravura is rendered worthless by a stupefyingly misguided final twist. It's meant to dramatize the inequities of the justice system, but it undermines all of Shaft's efforts and cheats the audience of its catharsis.

Jackson, plenty cool and cocky, has no lack of screen charisma and pushes the pedal through the metal, but you can't get very far on a dead battery. Wright steals the show, however, as the Spanglish-spouting upwardly mobile Dominican drug dealer. Nobody here, including the vigilante hero, is really on the side of justice. The movie is just an excuse for a high body count. Shaft gets his, and we get the shaft.

SHAFT (100 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence, drug use and language.


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