directed by John Singleton
(Paramount, 2000)

Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brother-man? Shaft, the private eye/ex-cop portrayed in 1971 by Richard Roundtree and now in 2000 by Samuel L. Jackson. Who's the black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks? Unfortunately, it's still only Roundtree. And therein lies one of the major problems with the 2000 edition that keeps this movie good instead of great.

First off, there is no single actor (except for Richard Roundtree) that could attempt to fill the shoes of Shaft except for Samuel L. Jackson. The only man to come close would be Laurence Fishburne, and he just doesn't have the style needed for the role. While I applaud director John Singleton's efforts in making this movie, there is a major problem in taking what was a B-movie blaxploitation flick and attempting a major motion picture release. In an effort to mainstream Shaft, Singleton takes some of the bite out of the baddest mother (hush yo mouth!) ... well, you get the idea.

The storyline is pretty simple. Shaft enters onto a crime scene where a black man (Mekhi Phifer) has just been brutally attacked in the street by an unknown assailant. While the majority white police force blocks off the area and commences with the standard search for clues, Shaft walks into a bar and gets a tipoff from waitress Diane Palmieri (Sixth Sense's Toni Collette) that rich white boy Walter Wade (American Psycho's Christian Bale) committed the act. Shaft busts him, and while the cops are handcuffing him, Wade makes some racial comments eliciting a sucker punch from Shaft. That punch gets Wade sympathy from the court and bail is granted, and he immediately leaves the country. Flash forward two years when Wade returns to the States, and Shaft immediately picks him up thanks to a tipoff. In an effort to get more evidence on the murder, Shaft starts looking for Palmieri to testify against Wade, only she's been in hiding since the whole event took place. Mix in a drug bust on Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright) to give Shaft another bad guy to take down, as well as a slew of good cops and bad cops, and you have the beginning of one giant plot twister.

As expected, Jackson played a great Shaft -- tough, slick, hip and very cool. Roundtree makes a guest appearance as "Uncle Shaft," still plying his trade as the coolest private eye to grace New York. Vanessa Williams, who plays the most attractive vice cop ever to grace a New York police station, acts as Shaft's sometimes backup, and rapper Busta Rhymes chimes in as comic relief/driver/sidekick Rasaan. Jeffrey Wright is excellent as neighborhood kingpin and adversary Peoples, yet had to share time with Bale's Wade, the dullest villain I have ever seen.

This movie suffered a great deal plotwise with so many different stories all at once. Singleton's cheap attempt to mix up the Wade storyline and the Peoples storyline just falls flat. The audience hops around all of the plot twists trying to keep up, and when the finale finally occurs, it comes out of nowhere, and leaves you scratching your head. Not because of what happens, but because Singleton waits til the end of the movie to split the previously joined storylines to deal with each in a different way. We had bad cops on the take with a minimal explanation as to why they turned from the law, and then why they're so gung-ho to kill Shaft. Singleton should have stayed with the more interesting Peoples Hernandez plotline instead of bringing a white-versus-black plotline into play, which in my view wasn't needed. I got the feeling that Singleton could not decide if his characters would act like it was 1971 or 2000 in regards to how the ethnic groups acted towards each other. And the "It's Giuliani time!" comment Shaft makes near the end of the movie was lost on most of the audience.

As I mentioned before, Shaft also suffers in trying to match up to its previous incarnation. Jackson's Shaft spends more time looking for Palmieri and slaughtering hordes of bad guys to ever get around to proving what a "ladies' man" Shaft is supposed to be. You would think there would be some action between Shaft and Vanessa Williams, but no. They keep that relationship professional, with just a touch of innuendo that they may have had a relationship. There was also a bartender that hinted at spending some "quality time," not that we could see our main man putting the moves on her. And with Palmieri, I would have expected Shaft to charm her into helping, not lecture and comfort her like a father would to a child. Shaft comes off more as a superhero than a cool cat out to do what's right. And in doing so, loses the magic that makes up the legend of Shaft.

But after all is said and done, this movie deserves a shaky thumbs-up. The majority of the cast did a great job, and seemed very comfortable with their roles. If you're not too worried about plot or are a Shaft purist, you'll probably enjoy this movie as the good time it was meant to be. If you're looking for hard-hitting street drama that usually comes from John Singleton, skip this flick. However, after viewing this movie, I recommend heading over to your local video rental place and picking up the original 1971 Shaft to see what this movie could have been.

Now can you dig it?

[ by Timothy Keene ]

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