Back in 1971, Shaft was one of leading lights of Blaxploitation cinema, but you kinda feel that the continuing adventures of the black private dick failed to live up to the promise of his original case despite trying to turn him into an action hero or even an international spy. However, flash forward to 2000 and the powers that be figured it was rightfully time to give John Shaft another crack at the Hollywood big time by latching on to the meteoric rise that Samuel L. Jackson was enjoying throughout the lion’s share of the nineties.
However, a pertinent question remained: what place does a jive talking, gun toting, womanizer have in a time when even Pierce Brosnan’s Bond movies were having to adjust its outlook in the face of changing sensibilities?
John Shaft II is a detective in the NYPD who has just about had it up to here with the racism and corruption he witnesses every day on the job, but the straw that breaks the camel’s back is an altercation involving epically arrogant rich kid Walter Wade Jr beating a black man to death in a racially motivated attack. The only witness, a massively intimidated waitress, isn’t talking and due to his massively wealthy contacts, Wade easily makes bail and subsequently flees to Switzerland while the only satisfaction Shaft gets to enjoy is a couple of random punches during the initial arrest.
However, after two years in exile, Wade returns to the States only for Shaft to arrest him again yet again and despite warnings that Wade’s wealth with undoubtedly get him off again, Shaft is supremely confident justice will finally be done.
However, the proves not to be the case and Shaft quits the force in disgust and takes it upon himself to bring Wade down himself by hoping to locate Diane, the missing witness from that night; however, Wade has somehow managed to befriend the legitimately unhinged Dominican drug lord Peoples Hernandez who also has past beef with Shaft.
As the ex-detective sizes up the terrain, he’ll have to be wary about who exactly he can trust as some of his former comrades on the force are in Hernandez’s pocket, but even then, all these alliances are shaky at best and full on combustible at worst – surely something that the savvy hero can use to his advantage.
As the ropes that bind all of these disparate characters who sit on both sides of the law gradually tighten, it’ll take a man who stands right on the dividing line to sort this mess out and make sure that long overdue justice is finally served.
Shaft 2000 is a curious beast. There’s so much about it that makes perfect sense and yet it never seems to quite hit the heights that you feel it should – it has a more than capable lead, a proven director, a rich legacy to build on and a truly stellar supporting cast, almost all of which were on the verge of breaking into out into full blown superstardom, but something about Shaft’s modern-day rebirth that simply doesn’t resonate any more that just being an entertaining crime thriller.
So let’s focus on the positive first; and front and centre in the title role is the shouty juggernaut the world knows as Samuel L. Jackson who attacks things with the usual subtlety he normally does. But while his high decibel trademark bluster is as watchable as always, he proves to be noticably less of a smooth customer than Richard Roundtree’s original. This is explained away by the movie being less a reboot and more an overdue continuation as Roundtree himself turns up as the original Shaft to teach his nephew how to navigate the streets when you don’t have a badge to lean on. It’s a cute concept, but it also leaves us with Samuel L. Jackson playing Shaft essentially as Samuel L. Jackson, something that makes perfect sense when you remember that the film was made in 2000, but still feels a bit of a cop out for a dude who’s theme tune tells us that copping out is something he’s known not to do.
Also feeling like he’s underachieving a little is director John Singleton, a man whose legendary debut, Boyz N The Hood was a searing glimpse into the life of a young black male on the streets of an L.A. ghetto, but while Shaft understandably contains a fair few social comments, there’s a sense that he’s pulling his punches somewhat for the blockbuster crowd.
Not pulling their punches, however, is the rest of the cast who provide the colourful supporting characters that come as standard with a Shaft movie and to start with we have a pre-Batman, post-Bateman Christian Bale going into smarm overload as the truly odious Walter Wade Jr. and you honestly believe that his entire face will collapse mid-summer. However, blowing him out of the water is the movie’s other villain which sees Geoffrey Wright flawlessly play a psychotic Dominican (yes, it’s a little questionable, but he’s so good) who does his business with the business end of an ice pick and thinks nothing of doing business while dropping a deuce with the bathroom door open. With such memorable bad guys it’s a shame that the limitless talents of Toni Collette are totally wasted as a fearful witness, but for all of their social groundbreaking, the Shaft movies have never been particularly good at giving choice roles to women…
Still, cramming the rest of the cast with familar character actors has always worked well for the series and spotting Dan Hedaya, Daniel von Bargen, Pat Hingle and at least two people who went on to be in The Wire helps gives proceedings a nice, Shaft feel.
However, this all doesn’t distract from the fact that the 2000 Shaft is ultimately an energetic, yet rather basic action thriller that contains lots of shouting from Buster Rhymes and that has the audacity to steal the denouement from 1991’s New Jack City.
So not the rebirth for Shaft that fans were hoping for then, but if nothing else, at least it’s fun, fast and ultimately created the visual template from which Jackson’s MCU version of Nick Fury originated from.
While this complicated man has been made somewhat simpler, there’s still a lot to dig.