Samuel L. Jackson stars as John Shaft in an update of the original Shaft movie starring Richard Roundtree who also has a supporting role in the film as Shaft’s Uncle John. There is no doubt that Jackson is perfectly cast as Shaft, but filmmakers don’t take full advantage of his talents as an actor by wasting shots of Jackson glaring inside his car during a high speed chase.
This modern installment of the Shaft series focuses on the plight of Diane, a bartender played by Toni Collette (Sixth Sense, Muriel’s Wedding). Diane is a weakly developed character who spends most of her time in emotional turmoil due to various crimes involving her and her brother. Collette does a fairly good job except for a crying scene near the end that comes off too forced to be believable. The audience doesn’t really get to know her enough to truly care about her motives and involvement in the crimes though they are understandable emotions.
Other characters in the film filter some undesirable elements into the film. For example, do you really feel good that Rasaan, played by rapper Busta Rhymes, gets his car fixed at the end? Singleton likes to put famous rappers in his movie, but Busta never showed any real talent or depth in his character. Filmmakers don’t even bother to develop his character. I guess you’re supposed to like Rasaan just because he’s with Shaft and is likable the recognition of Busta Rhymes.
Why wasn’t Christian Bale’s antagonist role as Walter smarter or more of a challenge for Shaft? Walter still gets what he deserves for his ruthlessness because his ignorant actions and senseless crimes. A key, but over extended sequence where Walter seeks some criminal support establishes a deeper involvement by a nasty drug dealer named People Hernandez, already formidable adversary to Shaft.
The ruthless criminal Hernandez, well played by Jeffrey Wright except for a few unrecognizable dialogue deliveries, provides violent challenges for Shaft who gladly obliges. Shaft has no nonsense attitude and exercises brutal punishment of crooks. Shaft does what most people imagine they would do in a confrontational situation and that’s part of the reason why he became such a pop culture icon.
Shaft’s propensity towards violence may leave a sour taste mainly because his character does not explore more non-violent options before resorting to violence. Watch the sequence where Shaft beats up drug dealer on street. Shaft approaches the situation with courage and conviction as he gives the audience an advanced warning of the upcoming violence in his dialogue with partner, Carmen, played by Vanessa Williams. You may justify Shaft’s actions, but when you see the result of a beaten human being lying on the street you should ask yourself – was there any other way?
Scenes involving innocent victims like battered women motivate Shaft to exercise his style of justice. It’s just too bad that the audience doesn’t see more scenes where Shaft really cares about people he helps, instead of scene of him hanging out in a bar. Shaft shows his compassion for the crime victims at Rasaan’s place as he convinces Diane to testify, but even then the dramatic crying scenes seem awkward and unnatural.
Based on the original Shaft movies, Shaft’s sexual prowess is surprisingly absent and is not addressed as much as Shaft’s “justice” on the street. The beginning scene has someone having sex, but since you don’t see Jackson himself you are lead to assume it’s him. The second and last time you hear Shaft reference sex you get an off screen encounter followed a corny line spoken to a bartender – “It’s my duty to work the booty.” In this case it seems filmmakers make a weak attempt to promote Shaft’s classic characteristic without having faith in Jackson’s sex appeal.
Director John Singleton begins well with a nice use of flashbacks in a early sequence where a bartender describes a murder scene to Shaft. Singleton uses other flashbacks and camera angles to bring the audience right into the emotional base of the film in the beginning, but the following mix of good scenes, corny lines, and quick action leads this reviewer to believe filmmakers couldn’t agree one singular vision and stick with it.
Overall the film delivers action and attitude, but sometimes fails in the areas of emotion and continuity. You may notice a continuity problem near the end involving Diane’s brother as he makes an odd appearance after an event that should’ve affected him differently.
Filmmakers include a good share of twists and assumptions about the characters to boost the film’s plot. Two sequences involving a “snitch” and Carmen are surprisingly predictable, but one assumption involving some public figures provides a fairly surprising result. One poignant act of violence near the end of the film yields an unpredictable result which stings the audience with issues of modern society versus raw human emotion.
A well made film with good moments, but the crime and violence, though portrayed realistically, may not set well with some audience members due to poor morals. Recommended with reservations (**1/2 out of four stars) and definitely rated R.
Copyright © Michael Siebenaler