[These first-impression comments were published when on the opening weekend of the film in 2000.]
Some actors have the gift of disappearing into a character, so that each role becomes a new revelation. But Hollywood seems to pride itself on developing a different kind of actor, the star that usually play the same role, with a different name and a different hat each time. These actors usually spend their years trying to find the character best suited to their personality.
Samuel Jackson is of that variety, and he’s about as good as those actors get, a compelling presence who steals every scene he’s in, even if he’s a supporting character.
In John Singleton’s Shaft, Jackson finally takes center stage, and it’s hard to imagine a vehicle more suited to his strengths. Even though he recycles many of the expressions and intonations he gave Jules in Pulp Fiction, Jackson makes John Shaft a much more interesting, entertaining, and compelling character than the original Shaft.
There is one striking difference. The original Shaft (who shows up briefly here, played again by Richard Roundtree) was a ladies’ man, and the movies celebrated his sexual exploits with any woman he met. Jackson’s Shaft exchanges flirtations with every woman he meets, and we are led to believe that he does, on occasion, do something about it. But the movie doesn’t dwell on his sex life. In fact, I almost had the feeling that this dirty wordplay might be only a game. The movie never shows us our hero actually engaging in these promised trysts at all. Nowhere is the movie’s disinterest in sex more obvious than in the fact that former Miss America Vanessa Williams is portrayed as Shaft’s tough-as-nails partner, and nothing more. She doesn’t even wear makeup. I found this restraint refreshing. This has caused a lot of critics to complain… critics who go in wanting something specific, not open to anything new.
Regardless of the details of his lust-life, the new Shaft is a leaner, meaner Dirty Harry of the streets. He’s an icon of vigilante justice. Such heroes usually bother me. They disrespect the importance of the law, and thumb their nose at the efforts of those who do try to make the law work for the people. Shaft is indeed overly violent and forceful in his methods. But his efforts did not strike me so much as disrespect for the law so much as a realization that, because he is in the presence of corrupt police officers, he has to do some behind-the-scenes work to lure those evil lawmen into a trap and restore dignity to the badge. He endeavors to expose the evil, to make a crooked system straight. While it compromises the integrity of the law to celebrate heroes who see themselves as “above” the law, Shaft’s errors are more well-intentioned, more honorable than most. In a time when minorities are up in arms about prejudice in police forces and in the courts, Shaft’s methods aren’t hard to understand.
In this episode, Shaft investigates a hate crime and, much to our surprise, finds his man right away. (Fortunately for the audience, the movie doesn’t become another guessing game of whodunit.) Walter Wade (Christian Bale) is a sneering, racist rich boy who gets cuffed by Shaft at the scene of a murder. Wade first eludes his punishment with the influence of his famous, wealthy father. But as Shaft closes in, Wade is driven to make connections with dangerous men for his own protection. There’s a witness out there, after all, a bartender named Diane (Toni Collette), who could testify against him. Wade has got to put a bullet in her head before Shaft finds her and convinces her to take the stand. So he links up with the local crime lord, Peoples Hernandez (the extraordinary Jeffrey Wright). So the film becomes a race: will Shaft find Diane and draw her out of hiding, or will Wade and Hernandez manage to get there first?
Christian Bale’s performance as Wade just might be the role that brings him the attention he has deserved since his astounding introduction in Spielberg’s underappreciated Empire of the Sun. He’s a seething, arrogant punk who manages to exist as a complicated, believable character instead of a one-dimension bad guy. He seems to be competing with Jeffrey Wright to be the film’s central villain, and although Wright’s performance is more impressive, Bale’s bad boy is the one we most want to see locked up. I found the scenes between Bale and Wright compelling, unpredictable, and intense, a demonstration of just how the pride and selfishness of evil men can cause their conspiracies to collapse from within. And in spite of such dazzling villains, Shaft manages to remain the most interesting character. That is a rare and unusual feat. A James Bond movie is only as good as its secondary characters, but Shaft joins a very short list of heroes who are full of surprises.
Director John Singleton is known for urban dramas about real issues, so I thought him an odd choice for such a mainstream, commercial, cops and robbers game. But he makes a talky, issues-oriented script by Richard Price into a slick, pedal-to-the-metal action movie that avoids gaudy explosions and preposterous stunts. Even though I was on the edge of my seat, I was also well-aware of a very real issue raised by Price’s plot: the law has become too complacent and complicated to do much good on the streets, and somebody has got to go out and help the people that are getting hurt. This is never made preachy; the action thunders on, quite an impressive balancing act.
Yes, there is a lot of violence here. Yes, the body count climbs fast. But the action scenes are in the longstanding tradition of cops and robbers shows. This isn’t realism; it’s a world of archetypes, and fairly fresh versions at that. Shaft is the larger-than-life thinking, caring, get-down-to-business good guy, and the bad guys are liars, traitors, drug lords. There’s enough tongue-in-cheek humor to the action to toe the line of comic book fantasy.
This film isn’t here to portray life on the streets. It does raise interesting questions. And the actors do bring startling dimension to their characters. But the primary focus of the film, and the real reason we’re here, is to watch Samuel Jackson sink his teeth into the Shaft’s trash-talking dialogue. Shaft is so generous with his brash, disarmingly big smile that if he teamed up with Ethan Hunt from Mission: Impossible it would turn into a contest of pearly whites. But unlike Cruise’s Hunt, Jackson’s Shaft is more than muscle. He can think fast. He doesn’t need big explosions. He doesn’t even need martial arts. His gifts lie in compassion for the persecuted, and in the seemingly effortless orchestration of justice, helping villains along their way to the consequences of their own actions. Several times I laughed out loud and cheered to see his cleverness pay off. That’s more than I can say about any other summer action movie so far this year.