SHAFT

John Shaft might have first appeared on screen nearly thirty
years ago, but he’s still one cool dude. Actually the hero of
John Singleton’s smart, sassy reinvigoration of the 1970s
series isn’t the original Shaft at all, but his nephew, a New
York City cop of all things, who chucks his badge in revulsion
at a judicial system that lets a racist killer off the hook
and becomes a lone wolf vigilante, as his uncle had been. But
the spirit and style of the new flick is very much one with
that of the earlier three pictures based on Ernest Tidyman’s
character, and the result is not just a successful bit of
nostalgia but a vibrant, classy sample of American pulp
entertainment in its own right. It’s also a triumphant
reassertion of the promise that John Singleton showed in his
first film, the powerful “Boyz N the Hood” (1991); the young
director stumbled badly in his sophomore feature, the dreary,
pretentious “Poetic Justice” (1993), and his third effort,
“Rosewood” (1997), didn’t get the approbation it deserved
(despite some flaws, it was a intriguingly mythic tale), but
here he shows himself in fine command again.

Singleton’s helped, of course, by a tight, exciting script
marked by Richard Price’s flair at capturing the gritty
atmosphere of urban life and streetwise patois while providing
spurts of macabre humor and stylish violence; working together
beautifilly, Price and Singleton (along with co-writer
Shane Salerno) nail the tone that a twenty-first century
“Shaft” should have, in the form of a happily convoluted plot
involving not only the hero’s crusade to get his man but also
elements dealing with a damsel in distress, police corruption,
the power of wealth in the judicial system and drug gangs.
What’s remarkable is that although the narrative is quite
complex, the writers and director manage to keep it clear and
crisp; only rarely will a viewer ponder why something’s
happening. And Isaac Hayes’ familiar throbbing score keeps
things moving splendidly.

The cast excels, too. Samuel L. Jackson brings his patented
blend of offhanded charm and underlying menace to the title
character, achieving a sense of street nobility that’s just
perfect for the character. He’s seconded in a few scenes by
Richard Roundtree, smooth and suave as the uncle who’s still
in the mix and still in shape. The younger Shaft also has
some amusing assistants, most notably a wild-eyed, jive-spouting
driver played by Busta Rhymes, who gets a good many chuckles
even if at times he seems an updated version of Antonio “Huggy
Bear” Fargas from “Starsky and Hutch.” There’s also a nice
turn, for a change, from Vanessa Williams, as a tough female
cop who’s obviously sweet on Shaft.

But it’s the pair of villains that gives the picture its final,
most important lift. Christian Bale, fresh from his amazingly
controlled turn as Bateman in “American Psycho,” uncoils nicely
in this followup, bringing intensity and fearsomeness to the
rich, spoiled racist Walter Wade whom Shaft pursues. Even more
impressive is Jeffrey Wright (the star of “Basquiat”), who
mixes humor and viciousness in flawless proportions as
“Peoples” Hernandez, a local drug lord who links up with Wade
to off a potential witness against him and build up his own
business in the process. Wright gives a witty, impishly evil
spin to the character (and a great accent to boot); the screen
hasn’t seen anything to match it since Benicio Del Toro nearly
stole the show in “The Usual Suspects.”

There are, of course, some flaws here. The members of the
Hernandez gang are presented in the cliched Keystone Crooks
fashion; they fire interminable rounds of ammunition at our
hero, but never manage to hit a thing. (Are there any worse
marksmen in the world than action-movie heavies?) The pace
of the picture occasionally goes a bit flat. The “police
corruption” angle isn’t handled as smoothly as it might be (and
one character’s “return from the dead” isn’t properly explained).
The final confrontation between Shaft and “Peoples” isn’t
nearly as exuberantly staged as one might have expected. And
the last twist seems like something lifted from an old “Law
and Order” episode.

These are relatively minor problems, however. Recent years have
seen a plethora of bad remakes of old films and dismal
bigscreen versions of beloved television shows, but this time,
they’ve gotten things just about right. “Shaft” offers an even
better time that its seventies predecessors; despite its
occasional lapses, it’s great fun, easily the best example of
pure popcorn escapism that the summer season’s offered so far.