Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Shaft

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

SHAFT

3/10

US 2000
dir. John Singleton
scr. Richard Price, Singleton, Shane Salerno (story Singleton, Salerno, based on the novel by Ernest Tidyman
cin. Donald E Thorin
stars Samuel L Jackson, Christian Bale, Jeffrey Wright
99 minutes

Shaft feels more like a marketing exercise than a movie its as if the studios, during their endless rounds of audience research, found commercial potential in combining the right actor with the right brand-name role, and hoped the rest of the dots would just fill themselves in. Well, it didn’t happen. The results are wildly uneven a long way from total disaster, but much further from total success, mainly thanks to a cobbled-together script that’s credited to three different writers.

Things start on a promising high note with Isaac Hayes original, unmistakeable theme playing over the studio logos and opening titles, and the kettle continues to boil nicely with the first-scene introduction of Jackson, all swagger and attitude, cockiness and charisma. But its downhill from here as the over-complicated plot unfolds: Shaft arrests vile yuppie Wade (Bale) for the murder of an innocent black man outside a bar. The only witness to the crime is a terrified waitress (Toni Collette) who flees into hiding. Wade skips bail and leaves the country, returning two years later to find Shaft waiting for him. Much of the films remaining time is devoted to Shafts attempt to track down the witness and ensure justice is done.

This is a broad outline, but there’s a lot more going on – cops and crooks changing sides with bewildering suddenness; numerous subplots that never go anywhere; countless loose ends and holes. For instance, were led to believe there’s some dark reason why Wade chooses to return to the US when he does but it remains a mystery. Even more damagingly, the film ends with a jaw-dropping twist which not only renders the whole business with the waitress redundant, but also calls into question exactly what, if anything, this film is actually about. It doesn’t help that Singleton isn’t much cop at handling action sequences, so its often difficult to work out exactly who is doing what, and why.

Jackson does as well as can be expected with the central character, but he’s never really more than a name, an attitude and a fancy wardrobe and what kind of a Shaft is this that he never gets to play any kind of love scene? The women are strictly in the background – second-billed Vanessa Williams and guest star Collette are, insultingly, given nothing to do, likewise Richard Roundtree, who pops up every now and then as the original uncle John Shaft. Couldnt the scriptwriters have come up with just one gunfight or car chase for him to get his teeth into? Bale reprises him American Psycho turn, but he’s stuck with a one-dimensional cardboard-villain role that’s only a notch higher than pantomime grade – its hard to care much about Shaft or any of the other good guys when the bad folks have the deck stacked so crassly against them. This worrying syndrome also afflicts Erin Brockovich and Gladiator: anybody who dares to oppose the hero/heroine must be made to look foolish, evil or, as here, needlessly racist.

The one golden exception, and the main reason for watching the film, is the performance by Jeffrey Wright as secondary villain Peoples Hernandez, a Latino drug baron. While Hernandez is actually fairly superfluous to the main story of the movie, he’s by far the most entertaining figure on show. Wright gives delicious gangsta inflections to each and every word his character utters, and attacks his role with a self-mocking verve that stands out as the one genuine aspect in an otherwise phoney production. Shaft is predictable and conventional, when it could and should have been wild and edgy, a new kind of hero for a new century, not just the same-old same-old same-old.

by Neil Young