Thursday, June 13, 2019

Summer School: 'Shaft' (2000)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

When John Singleton died a few months ago, not many tributes mentioned his 2000 reboot of the Shaft series starring Samuel L. Jackson as the title character. And it's not hard to see why, since Singleton's Shaft doesn't have the social conscience or personal vision of movies like Boyz n the Hood, Poetic Justice or Baby Boy, and it's not a big blockbuster product like 2 Fast 2 Furious. It's sort of a transitional piece for Singleton, mixing in the social realism and political commentary of his early work with the glossy action he shifted to later in his career. Those two elements don't always fit together neatly, but in that sense, this movie is just carrying on the Shaft tradition.

Although he's only six years younger than Richard Roundtree, Jackson plays the nephew of  Roundtree's original John Shaft, who shows up briefly in a handful of scenes but doesn't have any role in the plot. Jackson's Shaft is an NYPD detective who still believes that the system works, but he loses his faith when spoiled rich white scion Walter Wade Jr. (Christian Bale, basically playing Donald Trump Jr.) is granted bail on a murder charge against an innocent black man, and then flees the country. Shaft dedicates the next two years of his life to building a case against Wade, which mainly involves tracking down a bartender (Toni Collette) who witnessed the murder but is afraid to testify. Once Wade returns to NYC, he crosses paths with ambitious Dominican drug dealer Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright), and the two form an uneasy alliance of convenience against Shaft.

The movie is a bit ahead of its time with its focus on systemic racism and double standards in the justice system, and Bale's performance feels more relevant than ever. Wade is an over-the-top racist, but he's also sadly believable, and Bale is a more restrained villain than Wright, who puts on such a broad, cartoonish accent that I kept expecting him to ask people to say hello to his little friend. So certain aspects of this movie have aged better than others, and the details of the plot are not all that exciting (which, really, is standard for this franchise). Jackson is a good choice to take up the Shaft mantle, but his performance here is really more about playing his typical badass, wise-cracking Samuel L. Jackson character than it is about embodying the suave, righteous Shaft.

This Shaft is still committed to justice, though, even if he has to mow down a bunch of faceless henchmen in order to get it. The most iconic moments in this movie connect to Shaft's fury at injustice (when he hurls his police badge into a courtroom wall like a ninja star) and his way with the ladies (when he tells a lover "It's my duty to please that booty"), and those two elements are really what define the character, whatever generation he comes from. Singleton's movie is uneven, and it ends with a bit of a whimper, but he mostly proves himself worthy of picking up where Gordon Parks and Ernest Tidyman left off.

No comments: