It’s Isaac Hayes’s music, of course, that resonates. Whatever else you say about that “complicated man” named John Shaft, that whaa-whaa-whaa theme song identifies him immediately, reminds you that he’s unbeatable, incorruptible, and indisputably fly. And so, despite the many changes the character undergoes for John Singleton’s much-anticipated update of the now-venerable original Shaft, when the music kicks in, you know who you’re dealing with.
Or maybe not. The music is familiar and electrifying, but this Shaft is not who he used to be. Most obviously, he’s played by Samuel L. Jackson, not Richard Roundtree. So, while equally formidable, he’s more lean and mean, fiercer and more menacing than the old-school Shaft, who was consummately smooth, self-possessed and seductive. Jackson’s Shaft or more precisely, Singleton-and-Jackson-and- producer-Scott-Rudin-and-Paramount’s Shaft, for he is plainly a carefully considered product is also bald- headed with tightly organized facial hair, instead of wearing a proto-fro and impressive sideburns. But this new look only means that his fashion sense remains impeccable and timely. Where in 1971 he wore beige turtlenecks and a buttersmooth brown leather trenchcoat (with close-fitting black leather pants and short-cropped jacket for the big finale), now he’s more inclined to black turtlenecks, knit caps, and Armani outfits. Still, for all the cool continuities and connections, it’s briefly disconcerting to see Jackson’s Shaft conversing with his Uncle John, played by Roundtree, mainly because Roundtree looks much the same as he did 30 years ago, beautiful, unafraid, and ever ready.
Shaft Jr. is still a ladies’ man, no doubt: the new film opens with shadowy images of sex with an anonymous lovely intercut with shiny bullets and gun on the dresser. This signals the hero’s mutation immediately, as Gordon Parks’s movie began with his signature divey-zoom NYC street shots, introducing Shaft Sr. as a champion of the people, striding against traffic, flipping off drivers who didn’t know enough to give him the right of way. But Shaft the Younger is more emphatically focused on his job than on his woman, who may or may not be Alice (Sonja Sohn) they’re surely intimate, but he doesn’t need her to make him feel like he’s not a “machine,” the way the first Shaft needed his woman. But the new Shaft has made the necessary social and political adjustments: he doesn’t sleep around and certainly not with white girls with “groovy boobs” who pick him up in bars, as in the first film and he’s willing to work with a woman cop, Carmen (Vanessa Williams), who’s almost as tough as he is and infinitely loyal. The supercool Carmen obviously derives from (or perhaps pays homage to) Pam Grier, in particular her role as Jax in the one commendable Steven Seagal movie, Above the Law: she looks good in jeans, outsmarts the villains, and understands her partner’s needs. Certainly, Carmen embodies an appeal or an appeasement to a female “demo,” those viewers whom moviemakers presume don’t watch “male” action.
That the film is attending conscientiously to box office numbers in this way has everything to do with the burden of representation it has been assigned. Shaft‘s production history is fraught with exactly these concerns. So, it’s been reported repeatedly that the uncle-nephew pairing was initially conceived as a father-son relationship, along with the fact that Singleton first wanted Don Cheadle for the title role but the studio wanted a “name” to open the film; or that Jeffrey Wright’s charismatic madman-villain, Peoples Hernandez, was first a minor character and then promoted to more screen time because Wright’s over-over-the-top performance is so stunningly fun and mean and whacky. Such changes and the (reported) ensuing tensions among the director, producer, star have made headlines for Entertainment Weekly and Access Hollywood and the like, such that the stakes of Shaft‘s first-weekend box office are escalated. The film is now a potential franchise (all three principals have already said publicly that they’ll be on board for a next installment) and, most disturbingly, a portent for the commercial viability of black action flicks (Wesley, be aware), or black heroes (Denzel, are you listening?), or black anger-on-screen (everyone, pay attention).
That the film is bearing such a burden is certainly unfair and altogether typical (as Spike Lee has often and rightly observed, no one expects white films or filmmakers to represent their race). And it’s not a little ironic that it is Shaft which is representing so importantly and so prominently this year, given its relatively humble lineage, descending from Parks’s low-budget surprise hit and bigger- surprise enduring classic (which was its own franchise, comprised of Parks’s own Shaft’s Big Score in 1972 and John Guillermin’s 1973 Shaft in Africa, and a short-lived TV show). Some of this burden has to do with the moment the film is arriving in theaters. Sadly, following the much- publicized run-ins between New York cops and black men of recent years, Shaft’s particular and multiple beefs with the system seem more immediate and relevant than ever. And if the new Shaft has to kick ass a little more emphatically and with more explosiveness and ferocity than did his precursor, well, that’s just too damn bad. And besides, audiences are panting for action and effects, right?
But the objects of Shaft’s furious takedowns aren’t always representative of that screwed-up system, whose demise would signal the coming end of said system. Actually, they tend to be aside from an easy-target rich and cheeky white kid products and emblems of the same ire that drives Shaft. And so, the major difference between the Shafts is, unsurprisingly, their plots. Where the first was a notoriously independent “private dick” who took on the white cop and criminal establishments, the current model faces a series of injustices that are both more overt and more insidious. He begins the film as a cop, but soon quits the force spectacularly, hurling his badge like a lethal weapon at a judge, so that it embeds itself in the wall behind the idiot’s head. Point taken. It’s infuriating being a black man in the year 2000, and Shaft acts out his rage in inventive and grandly cinematic ways.
Most directly, Shaft is mad because being a cop limits his ability to punish the guilty, in this case, a contemptuous Caucasian scion named Walter Wade (Christian Bale) who murders a black kid (Mekhi Phifer) during the film’s first five minutes. Called to the scene, Shaft instantly puts the pieces together, in a clever sequence that inserts him into the bar at the time of the altercation, watching along with the other patrons. Deducing that there’s a reluctant witness to the crime, a waitress named Diane (the always shapeshifting Toni Collette), Shaft also pegs Wade as the conscienceless killer. But his acumen and flashy policework aren’t enough, and in fact, when Shaft punches the suspect for sassing him, he lays the groundwork for Wade making bail (due to a sympathetic white judge) and skipping to Europe.
Two years later, Wade comes home to find that he has incurred Shaft’s eternal wrath. And so, Shaft tosses him into jail alongside a maniacal local dealer named Peoples Hernandez. But here Wade makes a move that is fatal to his potential career as the film’s most compelling non-Shaft personality, when he makes a partner of Peoples. Acting like the Joker and the Penguin, these two opposites upscale Caucasian and underbelly Latino decide to make Shaft pay for his many offenses against the enterprising. But run-of- the-mill psycho-whitey Wade is no match for Peoples (so named, he says, “because I take care of my peoples”), whose lunatic violence, in Wright’s interpretation, is nearly poetic, scarily innovative. In one of the film’s most appalling scenes, Peoples responds to a tragedy by stalking zombie-like down the street after Shaft, lamenting, “You best kill me, motherfucker!” while stabbing himself repeatedly in the chest with an icepick, his grisly weapon of choice.
Though Peoples is clearly the most amazing character in the film, technically, he’s the underling, hired by Wade to take out Diane. This plot point means that Shaft and his few trustworthy associates including the flamboyant Rasaan (Busta Rhymes) must follow the standard plot wherein the good guys protect the witness so she can testify in court, that is, they act like they believe the system will work, despite all evidence to the contrary.
But anyone who knows anything about Shaft knows that the system doesn’t work, and this is the film’s more guileful point. In order to make it, this Shaft written by Singleton, Richard Price (Clockers) and Shane Salerno (one of the writers responsible for Armageddon) has to demonstrate its hero’s willingness indeed, his eagerness to step outside it. So, the film includes a minor incident in which a young mother exchanges information for Shaft’s promise to “do something” about the local banger who’s terrorizing her son into participating in gang activities. And Shaft takes the two minutes needed to smash in the culprit’s head, while the kid’s homies scatter in terror (much to the loud delight of the preview audience with whom I saw the film). The film is thick with such gruesome, righteous, and politically appropriative rampaging, as when Shaft must comfort the miserable mother (Lynne Thigpen, who, I think, has one line in the entire film) of the original victim. Or, more incredibly, when Shaft decides enough is enough, and, while in mid-mission going after Wade and Peoples and a crew of bad cops, cocks his shotgun and announces, “It’s Giuliani time!”
If the first version of Shaft offered a shrewd, bold role model, who was man enough to defy honky authority and be friendly with a gay white bartender, this one has concocted a full-on action hero, sensational, cruel, and ingenious. Shaft 2000’s assaults on bad guys dealers, punks, corrupt cops, racists are motivated, exciting, and expected, and always, a function of our time.