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SHAFT

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Samuel L. Jackson, Vanessa Williams, Jeffrey Wright, Christian Bale, Busta Rhymes, Dan Hedaya, Toni Collette, Richard Roundtree
Director:  John Singleton
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  See Review
Length:  99 Minutes
Release Date:  December 12, 2000

Film *** 

Shaft is still the man…as cutting-edge sharp, fun, and explosive as ever.

When the original came out in the 1970’s, it introduced a new kind of hero to the big screen:  someone who walked as tall as John Wayne, as cool as Clint Eastwood, as sexual as James Bond…but a man of African American persuasion.  Richard Roundtree created in Shaft a hero for the people, particularly those who often failed to see representation on film from mainstream Hollywood.  But the Shaft phenomenon would grow beyond being embraced by only one segment of the community.  Action fans from all backgrounds took to the hip, cool cop who would risk his neck for his brother man.

I’m glad to see him back in action for 2000:  Shaft has plenty of life left in him.

For starters, who could have better played the new Shaft than Samuel L. Jackson?  The man’s the modern epitome of coolness.  He plays not the original Shaft, but his nephew, with Richard Roundtree reprising his role as the original man in a few good scenes.  The new Shaft is a tall walking, tough talking New York cop, whose frustration with the system is about to make him bust loose in new and dangerous ways.

At the start of the picture, he shows up to investigate a brutal and possibly race-motivated murder:  a young black man who had his head bashed in by a steel pole.  There is an obvious suspect:  an icy cool rich boy, Walter Wade (Bale) with blood on his hands.  Literally.  He has the driver’s license of a young waitress, Diane (Collette) who works at the club outside of which the event took place.  Did she see the murder?  Is he threatening her?  But the case never comes to fruition.  After posting bail, Wade skips the country.

Two years later, he comes back, and Shaft nabs him a second time.  But when the idiot judge allows bail a second time, Shaft throws his badge away in disgust, vowing the smug racist killer won’t get away from him again.

This sets the whole plot in motion, which becomes rather involved.  Diane, the key witness, has all but disappeared.  Wade ends up partnering with another of Shaft’s enemies, Peoples (Wright), a drug dealer and gang leader with all kinds of connections.  Wade needs the girl found and disposed of.  Wright needs connections to some high-class customers.  Both want Shaft out of the way.  But Shaft is the master at turning two partners in crime against each other.  Soon, there will be hell to pay in a big way.

The action scenes are sparse, but very good when unfolding.  There’s lots of typical gunplay drama, where the bad guys can’t hit a target to save their lives, but the good guys never miss.  There is a great car chase scene near the end that will keep you on the edge of your seat.  And, when there’s no action, the film is carried along by the humor, the visual style, and Samuel L. Jackson’s cool presence in the lead.  One element that is strangely missing is the sex:  apart from a few ‘blue’ shots during the opening credits, Shaft appears to be too single-minded of purpose in this film to be the ladies’ man his uncle once was, even if he does get to say “it’s my duty to please that booty”.

I admire John Singleton a great deal, but I must confess…I’m not sure he’s right for action.  He has some great ideas, to be sure, but other moments are a little hit and miss.  The shot where the camera follows Shaft’s thrown badge until it buries into a wall is contrived, and breaks up the drama by calling attention to itself.  A shot where a car nearly rams Shaft looks much better in the supplemental material…in the film, Singleton chose the least interesting angle, and killed the excitement!  I couldn’t help thinking overall that the man I wanted to see directing Shaft was Antoine Fuqua of The Replacement Killers fame…a man who could combine slick action set pieces with great camerawork and editing, and an overall visual style that brought the action into the heart of the urban setting.

Still, there was much I liked about Shaft, and I give it a three star rating because it was entertaining, with good stretches of action, plus it boasted an excellent cast across the board and Samuel L. Jackson in the title role.  I think what all concerned created in this film is the start of something good…we’ll just have to wait and see what direction any sequel might find.

Video ****

Top notch!  As with Mission Impossible 2, Paramount delivers a sharp, crisp, and reference quality anamorphic transfer.  The print is pretty much in perfect condition, and the colors are bright and natural looking throughout, with good containment and subtle shading and detail.  There is no softness to any of the images—they are sharply rendered down to the smallest background items, without any hint of compression, grain, haze, or anything to spoil the picture’s looks.  Highest marks!

Audio ****

Rivaling the video quality is a tremendous 5.1 audio track.  At the start of the film, that famous high-hat tapping comes through with razor sharpness, and I knew I was in for a treat.  Isaac Hayes’ music has never sounded so good, with the subwoofer giving the bass and his low voice that extra kick.  The music is a treat throughout, but only the beginning of the story.  The film’s action sequences make excellent use of the discreet signals, bringing the gunplay and car chases to vibrant, thrilling life in your living room.  This soundtrack puts you right in the middle of the action and keeps you there…an excellent effort!

Features ***

Not a bad bevy of extras, though I sure would have loved a commentary track with either or both of John Singleton and Samuel L. Jackson!  There is a collection of cast and crew interviews, though, which is good, plus a detailed making-of documentary that gets into the “whys” of the remake, and even features Isaac Hayes in the studio re-recording the famed theme.  There is a trailer and two music videos, including one for Hayes’ “Theme From Shaft”, and one from R. Kelly, “Bad Man”.  This is all rounded out nicely with some cool animated menus accompanied by music.

Summary:

Shaft is quality entertainment for action fans on a superb DVD offering from Paramount.  Samuel L. Jackson IS Shaft, and Shaft is still the man.  Can you dig it?