Tag Archives: B

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.

THE FILTH AND THE FURY

Julien Temple’s new documentary dealing with the revolutionary
Punk Rock band The Sex Pistols can be bookended with his
earlier “The Great Rock and Roll Swindle” (1980), which told
the tale of the group’s brief, notorious history and ultimate
collapse from the point of view of its self-serving manager
Malcolm McLaren, who gave himself total credit for the Pistols’
meteoric rise and put blame for their calamitous descent on the
unruly members of the band. The second picture covers much of
the same territory, but is told from the band’s perspective,
with McLaren portrayed in a far less favorable light. The
juxtaposition of the two makes for an intriguing experiment in
oral and cinematic history. And on its own terms, “The Filth
and the Fury” (the title, of course, has a Shakespearean twist,
but actually derives from a headline about the Pistols’ antics
which appeared in a Fleet Street tabloid) is certainly engaging
to watch and often compelling to ruminate on. Using lots of
found footage and old interview tapes, as well as newly-
recorded conversations, Temple manages not only to rehearse
the unhappy story of the group’s rise and fall, but to capture
quite effectively the English milieu of the time, with its
combination of economic woe, gaudy gashion and political unrest.
A good deal of the credit has to go to editor Niven Howie, who
creates some really impressive cinematic collages that catch
the frenzied spirit of the late seventies in Britain (even if
most American viewers won’t recognize figures such as Harold
Wilson and Edward Heath, who pass by in the blur). Temple also
uses found footage well to suggest that the Pistols’ raucous,
offensive style had roots in the British music-hall tradition
and the grosser side of English TV vaudeville. And the excerpts
from the Pistols’ concerts, contemporary television appearances
and offstage antics still retain the power simultaneously to
shock, amuse and appall. One can also be taken by the periodic
appearances of Laurence Olivier as the smirking villain of his
filmization of “Richard III” as witty commentary on the fashion
in which the Pistols played on their bad-boy images during their
brief time in the sun (the credit sequence is patterned after
that of Oliver’s film, too); they also amusingly reinforce
the Shakespearean tone of the title.

It must be added, however, that anybody who’s seen Temple’s
earlier film on the group and/or read John (Johnny Rotten)
Lydon’s 1994 autobiography won’t find a great deal here that’s
terribly surprising or revelatory. The new interviews with
band members–all of them, except for Rotten, curiously filmed
with their faces obscured in shadow, to no apparent point–
pretty much reiterate their old diatribes against McLaren, who’s
heard speaking through a rubber bondage mask of the sort he
used to sell in a London boutique. The visual flourishes
involved in such proceedings are intriguing, but there doesn’t
seem much purpose behind them except to energize the recycled
material.

On the other hand, it’s certainly useful to have a few bits
from a late-in-life interview by Sid Vicious, the band member
who was accused of murdering his girlfriend and later died of
a drug overdose (and who was, it appears, quite instrumental in
insuring the group’s demise, too), even if his remarks aren’t
entirely coherent and their presence won’t displace the primacy
still rightfully held by Alex Cox’s “Sid and Nancy” (1986) on
the subject, whatever the dramatic licenses taken in that
renegade biopic.

“The Filth and the Fury” doesn’t exactly fill an enormous gap
in material on The Sex Pistols, therefore, and viewers familiar
with their story will find a good deal that’s repetitious and
redundant here. Nevertheless the group’s music, sizable
chunks of which are included, still has surprising power and
resonance in spite of (or perhaps because of) their rather
serious technical limitations, and Temple and Howie’s swift,
virtuoso editing keeps the eye and ear engaged even when
they’re not being offered anything terribly new. If you’re
unacquainted with the subject, moreover, you should find that
the piece stands on its own quite nicely and provides some
fascinating cultural history to boot.