Rated R - Running Time: 1:38 - Released 6/16/00

Let's see . . . who's the black private dick who's a sex machine to all the chicks / a man who would risk his neck for his brother man / a cat who won't cop out when there's danger all about / a complicated man understood by no one but his woman . . . Nope — there's nothing in Isaac Hayes's song about a believable plot, so I guess Shaft does its job. Samuel L. Jackson is as charismatic as anyone would want, John Singleton's directing is action-packed and full of New York atmosphere, and the music is eminently street-cool. And the people, even those other than the famous title character, are interesting and varied, featuring excellent performances by co-villains Christian Bale and Jeffrey Wright.

But Shaft suffers from some fundamental lapses in the story department, and while this is not a fatal flaw, it certainly brings the old credibility rating down a few points. Perhaps the problem stems from having too many cooks in the kitchen during the writing process. The screenplay is by Richard Price (Ransom), adapted from a story by himself, director Singleton (Boyz N the Hood), and Shane Salerno (Armageddon), based upon the 1971 novel by Ernest Tidyman, who won an Oscar for The French Connection that same year. But I doubt that Tidyman's novel included the part about John Shaft quitting the force and then being allowed to pursue his case without having to obey the law. It seems unlikely.

After the racially motivated murder of a black man, killer Walter Wade (Bale) skips the country before he can be prosecuted. He is apparently able to do this because his father is a wealthy, influential politician. But the ever-vigilant Shaft catches him the minute he tries to re-enter the country (two years later) and throws him in jail. While there, Wade meets Peoples Hernandez (Wright), a local drug lord whom Shaft has previously imprisoned for carrying an ice pick with no ice. I think it's called "possession of ice paraphernalia." Although Wade has already clearly shown his antipathy for certain racial groups, he and the Hispanic Hernandez become buds, and he asks Peoples to expand his business to contract killing. You see, there was a sole eyewitness to the murder, a waitress named Diane (Toni Collette), whom Shaft has been dogging for two years, and although she is reticent to testify, Wade knows she'll be even better at being quiet if she's dead.

Soon Wade is on the street again, so Shaft turns in his badge in order to more effectively break the law. Soon he is engaging in one gunfight after another, aided by his friend Rasaan (Busta Rhymes), and his ex-partner Carmen (Vanessa L. Williams), who is still a cop but is willing to risk her career to join in the lawbreaking. While attempting to rescue Diane from her overprotective family and draw her into the center of the gunfight, they are exchanging fire with Peoples, his goons, and some cops who turned goon when they found the money was better. So you've got the standard cops/goons conflict. The question is, now that Shaft turned in his badge, is he a cop or a goon? Whatever he is, he's also an excellent marksman, because he repeatedly kills the bad guys with one shot fired around corners, without ever even being nicked by the constant hail of lead raining down on him from all directions.

Plot problems aside, Shaft allows Jackson, Wright, and Bale the chance to show off their talent, not to mention Collette, who was nominated for an Oscar last year for best supporting actress in The Sixth Sense. And it also features a cameo by none other than Richard Roundtree, the original Shaft. Damn right. ***½

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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