as reviewed by Skylaire Alfvegren
He's big, he's black, and he's the nephew of famed New York detective John Shaft. Considering there was no concept of racial sensitivity in 1971–the year Richard Roundtree first seduced the ladies and nailed the bad guys as the original Shaft–it's disconcerting that Samuel L. Jackson spends his whole movie trying to lock up one rich, evil honkey.
Granted, the honkey in question is atrocious. Christian Bale rewires his American Psycho into an upper crust racist who murders a black man at a club and flits off to Switzerland after daddy posts bail. But a rich, evil honkey is such an easy target for a slick black dick.
Roundtree's Shaft ("a spade detective with one foot in whitey's trough"), was a cool cat with street smarts, a way with the ladies and a posse of black revolutionaries at his disposal. Jackson's Shaft is an Armani-clad detective with a bad temper, a Rastafarian lackey (Busta Rhymes) and some brilliant schemes. Not to mention some sexy wallpaper–Vanessa Williams as narco officer Carmen Vasquez, looking very street smart but not at all Latino.
Although much faster paced than its inspiration, Shaft ain't fun. Director John Singleton cops out with a big issue instead of emulating the jive and free love that made Roundtree's character so epic. Jackson doesn't get laid once, while his uncle (Roundtree), who pops up to give the younger dick sagely wisdom, makes off with a bevy of babes. Jackson spouts all kinds of sexy slogans, even when he's alone at the car wash, but all the while he's tracking the Waspy waitress (Toni Collette) who witnessed the murder. Back in the day, it was free love under earth-toned mobiles. Now it's an exercise in racial discord.
There ain't just a precinct full of crooked crackers and streets full of shady black cats Shaft pulls into his schemes. Singleton gets the Latino vote with king hood Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright), a stylized Cuban crime boss who comes across as a human version of the Taco Bell chihuahua.
Jackson smolders–his eyes two shimmering pools of perception–and you believe he's a pissed off mofo. And Busta Rhymes deserves props for his performance as Shaft's put-upon assistant. Although it's not a remake, you'd hope for some kind of spiritual link to the fractured urban circus the original character inhabited. Unfortunately, the only link Singleton's movie offers is through Jackson's wardrobe; his cashmere turtlenecks and black Armani leather the only homage to Roundtree's funk soul brother. Somehow it's sad to see one of the '70s most ferocious film characters reduced to his brown leather trench coat.