Can We Dig It?

The new Shaft will be a monster hit, but it’s a cynical piece of work. 

Directed by John Singleton
Paramount Pictures

In the new, big-budget Shaft, Samuel L. Jackson plays the police-detective nephew of the original, low-rent superstud private dick (Richard Roundtree). But Jackson’s Shaft doesn’t have a lot in common with his legendary “Uncle J”: He’s more like the nephew of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. Roundtree—who shows up here for a few mellow scenes—was brooding and cynical and had no illusions about whitey’s law (or whitey’s anything). The younger Shaft does: He thinks the world has changed since 1971. His bald head gleaming, he strides through the night in his long coat toward a crime victim—a young black man whose head has been beaten in—like a Western sheriff, like a man who thinks he can make a difference. When the courts and the high-priced lawyers throw roadblocks at him and keep him from nailing a rich white racist murderer (Christian Bale), Shaft hurls his badge at the judge and then goes out to bust heads in the name of justice. This Shaft recycles the same old right-wing vigilante action-movie tricks to achieve its anti-racist, “liberal” ends: It says police brutality is great if the brutal policeman is black. And the audience—especially African-Americans, who in the real world have increasingly found themselves on the opposite side of this issue—cheers lustily.

I cheered, too, because Shaft is a pretty good action flick—twisty, marvelously acted, and energetically (if not always coherently) staged. I laughed all the way through it, thrilled to Isaac Hayes’ love-daddy theme in Dolby digital surround-sound, applauded my surrogate badass good guy, and prayed for the scumbag white villain to die in a lot of pain. The movie had a famously troubled production—accounts vary as to who had more of a role on the set, the director and co-screenwriter, John Singleton, or co-producer Scott Rudin—but the finished film is a confident piece of work: It masterfully pushes people’s buttons. The shootouts have some of the crude vitality of Gordon Parks’ original, which was made at a time when splattery, high-impact urban gunplay was still a novelty, and Hayes’ music (embellished by David Arnold) brings back some of the old elation. The movie will be a monster hit, and it deserves to be—but at what price?

The first Shaft (1971) was not a well-constructed film, but it holds up: You can still feel its glee in smashing taboos. From Shaft’s disregard for clueless white cops to his casual bedding of a white woman to his final, exultant taunt, the picture is a celebration of black potency, both individual and collective. It says, “You don’t have to like us, but don’t mess with us: We have powers you wouldn’t believe.” It’s out there dancing and wagging its manhood.

In the last 29 years, action movies have given us scores of superblacks, so the remake has a different agenda. It turns on a young black man (Mekhi Phifer) exercising his freedom by showing up at a downtown club with a white woman and getting inexplicably mocked by a preppie (Bale) with a chip on his shoulder. The guy tries to laugh off the barrage of racist insults, but how can he? He finally picks up a knife and—no, you racist, it’s not what you think—he cuts eyeholes in a cloth napkin and then drapes it over his abuser’s head, a brilliant rejoinder that shames the white man and drives him into a homicidal fury. After what happens next, there’s no punishment too dire for that rich scumbag or for the people he enlists to help him stay above the law.

Samuel L. Jackson is the perfect punisher. You don’t cast Jackson as a laid-back dude who’s catnip to the ladies. You cast him for his intensity, his spooky monomania. Jackson’s Shaft is a guy who won’t take his eyes off you, who’d win a staring contest with a blind man. All edges and righteous anger, he’s a seething, post-Spike Lee John Shaft: By Any Means Necessary.

On their first meeting, Jackson’s Shaft punches Bale’s Walter Wade in the face and the audience whoops. When he’s told he’s going to be transferred “uptown” for that act of violence, he says, “For this?” and socks Wade in the face again. Later, hunting for a witness (Toni Collette) who has gone into hiding, he makes a deal with a black woman: In exchange for information, he’ll get rid of some young drug dealers who’ve been using her son as a courier. Audiences are treated to the sight of Shaft strolling up to the dealer—in baggy pants, listening to loud gangsta rap—and pummeling the hell out of him with no direct provocation.

Do the people who cheer like mad at that scene imagine how it would play if the cop were white? And what are we supposed to make of the moment in which Shaft and an ally (Vanessa Williams) blow away two crooked cops and exclaim, “Giuliani time!”? Don’t the filmmakers realize how close in spirit to Giuliani—and to the officers who allegedly coined that phrase—their heroes are? The movie is about dueling senses of entitlement, but rather than suggest that no one is entitled to vigilante justice, it says that the system is so corrupt that vigilantism is our last best hope. The double standard even extends to the wardrobes. Shaft pointedly queries a white superior (Daniel Van Bargen) about how he could afford a Nassau County manse on a New York City policeman’s salary. Meanwhile, he’s wearing a leather Armani jacket that looks as if it costs about as much as the down payment on a house.

The principal screenwriter, Richard Price, wrote the novel (and screenplay) for Clockers, and he knows his way around the longings of narcs and drug lords: He can give this crap a vein of psychological realism. The movie’s most inspired invention is an egomaniacal Dominican coke dealer who calls himself Peoples (Jeffrey Wright) and who ends up forming a bizarre alliance with Wade’s preppie psycho. They don’t connect at all, but in Shaft they have a common antagonist, and Price has written teasing scenes in which they circle each other warily, contempt coming off them in waves. This is essentially a reprise of Bale’s American Psycho turn, but the actor is good enough to internalize his character’s snobbery: His Wade is so indefatigable in his awfulness that he has a peculiar integrity. Shaft will finally make Wright a star, and it should: He’s an amazing actor. His paean to “Tiger Woo” and other pillars of American entrepreneurship is hilarious, and when he fixes the privileged white boy with a hungry stare and says, “I would kill to be joo,” joo know he would.

The movie seems to be building toward an ingenious finale: that Shaft can win by pitting his enemies against one another, playing on their warring senses of entitlement and their terrible characters. But Bale drops out in the last half-hour, and the final confrontation is strictly crash-crash-bang-bang. If the moviemakers had been braver, they might have underlined the fact that Wade and Peoples’ lethal partnership is the direct result of Shaft’s reckless, extralegal brutality—that they only meet in jail after Shaft trumps up a phony assault charge against the drug lord. The moral then might have been “Vigilantes end up creating more monsters than they vanquish,” instead of the one that Shaft carries now: “Vigilantes look especially cool in Armani.”