THE cool quotient is evident from the opening credits, as Samuel L Jackson introduces himself as the punch first, ask questions later cop who ‘might bring you down, but won’t let you down’.
Shaft, the Seventies thriller which made an icon out of Richard Roundtree, has been ably re-invented for the new century by director John Singleton and star Jackson, who has recognised his chance at creating his own franchise, and has grabbed it.
Resolutely a ‘black’ film, Shaft unravels in New York where rich kid Walter Wade (the terrific Christian Bale) cold-bloodedly kills a young black man after taunting him at a restaurant.
Detective John Shaft – Jackson at his leather-clad, shades-wearing best – is drafted in to investigate the killing and unearth witnesses to what is, quite obviously, a race murder.
But when Wade walks away from court thanks to a loophole, Shaft, disgusted at the inequality of a system that favours the criminal, resigns and vows to bring his quarry to justice.
While we are undoubtedly witnessing the birth of the first black franchise since Beverly Hills Cop and Danny Glover’s role in the Lethal Weapon films, Shaft comes across as a muddled amalgam of homage and gritty contemporary thriller.
While Jackson enjoys himself hugely as the titular star, director Singleton loses his way in a plot which attempts to embrace hard-edged cop movie, social commentary and quasi-spoof, while rather unsatisfyingly providing none of them in abundance.
Part of the problem appears to be both Singleton and Jackson’s attempts to pay tribute to the Seventies feel of the original (directed in 1971 by Gordon Parks) while wallowing in the updated mood of the remake.
The in-your-face feel of the film’s social conscience – the race crime at the heart of the story – slows the story considerably. The message is simple: no-one can escape the law when the law is black.
Political correctness may be taking Hollywood by storm but in a movie which introduces a character like Shaft, perhaps politics should have been edged out in favour of straight thrills and spills.
Nevertheless, the movie looks and feels like modern-day New York, and Jackson strides around looking terrific, even if some of the dialogue is decidedly ropey: “It’s my duty to protect that booty,” he says at one point.
Jackson has to work hard to prevent his character sliding into caricature. John Shaft is a man who’s not afraid to bend the rules or use violence to achieve the result he wants. And while this is believable violence – Shaft is no Rambo – it seems at odds with what Singleton and Shaft appear to be wanting to achieve: a cool movie.
The casting is also weak. Just as Shaft is a black movie with black issues at its heart, it also favours black actors above all others. Whites get the supporting tasks – for instance Sixth Sense Oscar nominee Toni Colette, way down the cast list as the chief witness – while black actors get the glory.
Bale appears to be delivering a De Niro impression as his reptilian villain, an untouchable, wealthy, arrogant and duplicitous killer whose ego is his downfall. The best performance, however, comes from Jeffrey Wright, a black actor who provides a mesmerising star turn as a Hispanic gangster.
As an opener, Shaft sets the scene for the franchise to come. Jackson will undoubtedly play the character again. Next time, however, he’ll need a stronger script and a firmer hand on the tiller if he wants to prevent his franchise self-destructing under the weight of its own supercool aspirations.