Director John Singleton’s “Shaft” is something of a remake, but also a reboot for modern audiences. Fans of the seventies crime thriller with Richard Roundtree will recognize the name of Shaft, while modern audiences can enjoy the pure machismo of Samuel L. Jackson in an iconic role. Why it never became a full fledged movie series is not at all surprising. “Shaft” takes on all the beats of the action genre, with a lovable hero, brutal villains, interesting sidekicks, and enough action to satisfy easily bored audiences. The problem is, once “Shaft” is done, there simply is nowhere left to go with this character.
Shaft in the twenty first century is depicted as the perfect hero, the man with zero flaws who is loved by everyone. He can dodge bullets, and shoot with finesse, villains can never match up to him, thugs fear him, women want him, thus, the movie is essentially finished with the character by the time the credits roll. Where else do you take Shaft once the movie has ended? Shaft comes out a winner with zero consequence in the finale of Singleton’s re-working of the seventies crime picture. It’s tough to really go in to a sequel, even for the best writer. Cleverly, rather than try compete with Richard Roundtree’s immortal portrayal of the black private dick who’s a sex machine with all the chicks, “Shaft” manages to instead completely reboot the concept for a contemporary age and casts one of the modern bad asses of the film industry, Samuel L. Jackson.
This time around we meet John Shaft, the incorrigible and charismatic nephew of Roundtree’s John Shaft who, like his uncle, is a ladies man and a very good police officer. Even when he works outside the law, he is beloved. Hell, the man practically has a statue devoted to him in his neighborhood. Jackson really pulls this role off with ease, never breaking a sweat as the easy talking officer who looks to bring down two crime bosses when they team up to dominate the underworld. There is a brief segment devoted to Christian Bale as a racist aristocrat who murders a restaurant patron in an apparent hate crime, but once the writers introduce crime boss Peeples to the mix, that sub-plot falls by the wayside, in order for the story to take a vastly different direction. “Shaft” has definite entertainment value, but where as the original film was a gritty crime thriller, Director Singleton aims more for easy action comedy, and cartoon action that never quite plays well on repeated viewings.
Jackson’s performance is dynamic, and Shaft is potentially a great hero, but the writers play it all too safe. Shaft is flawless. Thus he gets very boring, very easily. Only by virtue of flawed characters surrounding him, does Shaft warrant attention. Shaft’s likability goes far beyond believability and inevitably reaches in to silly territory. In Richard Roundtree’s “Shaft,” John Shaft worked out of the confines of the law and often skirted the definition of vigilante. In the end of the first “Shaft,” Shaft saves his own life and leaves a mess for the authorities to clean up for themselves. In this reboot of “Shaft,” John Shaft is beloved by his police brethren and often plays vigilante with so much approval it’s absurd at times.
In one scene John Shaft beats down a wannabe gangster and holds him at gunpoint threatening to kill him if he doesn’t leave a young boy alone. While doing so a cop car slides along side the scene, and Shaft exchanges glances with the officer who nods in approval leaving Shaft to his business. While the scene itself is played for laughs, it’s through the roof hypocritical that Shaft fights against police corruption while working outside the law and contending with officers who allow him to break laws, however minor they may be. Why should it be okay for Shaft to break the law, and turn around to kill corrupt officers working with the mob? “Shaft” packs a ton of style and solid laughs, but in the end, it’s mostly a hollow experience (with a final scene that shamelessly rips off “New Jack City”), that’s easily forgotten. Which is indicative in the fact that it never spawned a sequel.