Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Shaft (2000)
Studio Line: Paramount Pictures - Still the man, any questions?

Who delivers ten times out of ten? Samuel L. Jackson is Shaft, the man and the movie. John Singleton (Boyz 'N' the Hood), directs this gritty action packed thriller.

With Uncle John Shaft (Richard Roundtree reprising his original role) as mentor, it's no surprise that today's Shaft is the coolest dude and the hottest action around. To stop a racist killer (Christian Bale) Shaft's got to track down the only eyewitness that can put him behind bars (Toni Colette). As Shaft closes in, so does the danger. Armed with attitude and up against corrupt cops and venomous druglords he's out to make crime pay up.

Director: John Singleton
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Vanessa L. Williams, Jeffrey Wright, Christian Bale, Dan Hedaya, Busta Rhymes, Toni Collette, Richard Roundtree
Box Office: Budget: $46 million. Opening Weekend: $21.714 million (2337 screens). Gross: $70.327 million.
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1, French Dolby Surround; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 12 chapters; rated R; 99 min.; $29.99; street date 12/12/00.
Supplements: “Reflections on Shaft” Cast and Crew Interviews; “Shaft: Still the Man” Featurette; “Theme from Shaft” Isaac Hayes Music Video; “Bad Man” R. Kelly Music Video; Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD | Music soundtrack - Various Artists

Picture/Sound/Extras: A/B+/C

For some time now, the question has dogged me: Just who is the black private dick who’s a sex machine with all the chicks? At first I thought it was Rodney Allen Rippy, but that was a mistake. Then I figured it had to be Nipsey Russell - wrong again.

As it happens, the answer is Shaft - John Shaft. Can you dig it?

Well, not really, at least not in the case of this version of Shaft that updates the character for the new millennium. Actually, this film’s John Shaft is the nephew of the dude featured in the 1971 original. In a nice tip of the cap to history, Richard Roundtree makes a return appearance here as Uncle John; he doesn’t have a lot to do in the movie but it’s a classy move to honor him nonetheless.

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot else about Shaft that impresses me. Based on its pedigree, this should have been a terrific film. It starred the always-impressive Samuel L. Jackson as nephew Shaft and was directed by the inconsistent but still solid John Singleton.

However, this movie misfires on many different cylinders and never provides a satisfying experience. For one, the age difference between Jackson and Roundtree is so insubstantial that it feels odd to make the “new” Shaft allegedly a member of a younger generation. Roundtree is only six years older than Jackson, and he looks good; why not have him reprise the role?

The answer likely hearkens back to “marketability”. I don’t know how many tickets Jackson sells, but I’m sure it’s about a zillion more than Roundtree would move, and that’s clearly the reason for his casting. I like Jackson, but that issue bugged me as I watched the film.

Granted, even without that concern, I still wouldn’t have liked Shaft very much. My main problem with it stemmed from the fact that it’s simply not a very interesting movie, and its flaws overwhelm its positives. I often felt as though I was watching a parody of an action flick. Jackson hosted the MTV Music Awards not long ago, and the show featured some spoofs of Hollywood clichés. I think the writers didn’t get the joke because they seem to have copied the gags verbatim into this movie.

The film’s hypocritical racism doesn’t help. Whenever someone evenly vaguely hints that they may have once possibly considered the thought that a stereotype about African-Americans possesses any validity, that person is quickly vilified. However, the movie has no trouble whatsoever reveling in stereotypes about whites, Latinos, Italians and anyone else it chooses.

This tendency seems exemplified through the over-the-top Latin druglord Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright). This character was actually fairly engaging because of a charismatic turn from Wright. However, the extremely-stereotypical manner in which the character is depicted really made him tough to watch.

Rich white guys are always fair game, and that makes our main villain, racist murderer Walter Wade (Christian Bale), such an easy target. Between Shaft and American Psycho, Bale has quickly established himself as one of the best portrayers of smug, hateful hunks, and his performance here fits in that way. Never mind that the character is little more than a cliché, because Shaft doesn’t want anything more complex than that; it just desires a cartoon baddie at whom the audience can channel all of their anger. At least Hernandez has some depth; Wade is just a caricature.

Shaft also turned me off due to its fascist tone. This movie’s a vigilante’s dream. We’re told that power is always used to corrupt ends and the only way to do what’s right is to take the law into your own hands. This results in multiple scenes where Shaft distorts the law to his own ends and assaults others at will.

What makes Shaft better than those he pursues? Not much. The film uses overtly-evil characters like Wade and Hernandez to get the audience on the side of our strong-armed hero; the story has the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Shaft needs to show the most nasty villains imaginable to keep the crowd on the side of the star. Otherwise, if the baddies were less clearly evil, we might actually think for ourselves and realize how abhorrent Shaft’s methods really are. His tactics are the same types for which police are regularly vilified, yet we’re supposed to applaud his lawlessness because it’s allegedly impossible for anyone to work within the system.

Shaft goes to absurd ends to justify this viewpoint. After Wade skips bail for years and ultimately returns and once again enters custody, the judge grants bail again! This is insanely asinine - there’s no way someone who immediately fled the last time would be allowed out again. However, since the story wants us to a) hate legal authority, and b) show how good old Shaft is so regularly thwarted in his attempts to fight lawlessness, we have to find absurd ways to have Wade on the street.

I don’t buy it. Some may excuse all of this stupidity because Shaft was a summer flick; that season’s offerings tend to be dumber and flashier than most. While I indeed will excuse dumbness in many action films, these tend to require a lot of suspension of disbelief in any case; movies like Armageddon or the Bond pictures live in such a fantasy world that I don’t fault their excesses.

Shaft is a different case. At no point are we led to believe this film is placed anywhere other than the real world. That’s why the movie’s flaws bothered me so much. No, Shaft doesn’t attempt to be a really true-to-life pseudo-documentary; there’s no question it wants to make things larger than life. However, the way in which it picks and chooses its concepts of right and wrong made it bothersome to say the least.

What was good about Shaft? The cast seemed generally strong. Jackson occasionally slips into autopilot - that’s part of the reason it felt like a parody - but he remains an engaging and powerful actor. The supporting actors provided largely useful performances as well.

Singleton manages to move the film along at a solid pace. Despite the aspects of Shaft that annoyed me, I can’t say that I was ever bored during the movie. The story is nothing special, but it seemed serviceable and kept my attention. You also can’t go wrong with Isaac Hayes’ famous theme song, which continues to be terrific after all these years.

Nonetheless, I definitely disliked Shaft. Not all movies need to be subtle and nuanced examinations of their subjects, but the insane lack of balance on display during Shaft really made it unpalatable. The movie has some moments, but for the most part it’s a distasteful mishmash of action clichés and stereotypical caricatures.

The DVD:

Shaft appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Paramount have built a strong reputation for some excellent transfers, and Shaft won’t do anything to dispel that notion - it’s a terrific image.

Sharpness seemed meticulous throughout the film. Virtually no softness could be seen as the movie looked crisp and detail at all times. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no concerns, and I saw modest artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV. Print flaws were nearly nonexistent. I saw a speckle or two and a very occasional piece of grit, but that was it. At no point did I witness any scratches, hairs, tears, blotches, marks or other more significant defects.

Shaft featured a pretty limited palette to support the film’s urban look, but the overall appearance of the colors seemed good. The hues were clear and accurate and displayed no signs of bleeding, noise or other concerns. Black levels seemed absolutely flawless. The dark tones were rich and deep and contrast looked solid. Shadow detail appeared appropriately heavy but never exhibited any excessive thickness that would obscure the image; low-light situations were easily visible. Overall, Shaft presented a very solid picture throughout the film.

Also quite good was the movie’s Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, though it wasn’t as strong as the image. The soundfield seemed fairly heavily oriented toward the front channels. The forward spectrum displayed some detailed and well-defined audio that also blended together nicely. Sounds spread cleanly across the front speakers and they moved between channels accurately. The surrounds generally contributed decent ambient support. While they occasionally offered more active involvement -such as during a car chase near the end of the film - I thought the rear channels seemed a little subdued for this kind of movie. The activity level was acceptable, and the overall imaging was pretty good, but I still felt the surround activity was a bit too modest.

Audio quality largely appeared very good. Dialogue appeared crisp and concise at all times; I detected no edginess or problems with intelligibility. Music seemed clear and bright and displayed good dynamic range; the songs and score were nicely-reproduced. Effects usually came across as clean and accurate and they could often pack a solid punch. The only minor concern I observed stemmed from some gunfire; at times, gun shots appeared a bit rough and lacked the clarity they should have displayed. Nonetheless, I found the soundtrack of Shaft to offer a very satisfying experience.

Shaft includes a few decent supplemental features, most of which are typical of many Paramount releases. We start with “Reflections on Shaft”, 13-minute and 15-second program that includes interviews with cast and crew. We hear from director Singleton and actors Jackson, Wright, Bale, Roundtree, Toni Collette, and Vanessa Williams. These are moderately interesting but nothing special. It’s the usual compliments and praise all around, with a smidgen of information about the making of the film. It’s watchable but not terribly interesting.

Next we find a 16-minute and 15-second featurette called “Shaft: Still the Man”. This piece follows the same tone of the interview package. It’s essentially another collection of interview snippets and movie clips plus a few shots from the set. We hear from the same folks who spoke during “Reflections” as well as rapper-turned-actor Bustah Rhymes and singer Isaac Hayes. Some segments with Hayes offer the most fun in this piece, as we see him at work in the studio. Overall, it’s a mildly entertaining little program but it doesn’t add much to the experience.

A few other extras round out the collection. We get the film’s excellent theatrical trailer as well as two music videos. The DVD includes a new clip for Hayes’ classic theme song plus a video for R. Kelly’s “Bad Man”. Both programs stick to the usual formula: we get a mix of movie snippets and lip-synching. Though neither is terribly special, they both are stylish and moderately interesting. Hayes’ video is the better of the two just because it’s the superior song; otherwise, little differentiates the two.

Although Shaft makes for a generally solid DVD, it’s not one that I would recommend simply because I really disliked the film itself. Shaft delights in selective racism and features a heavy-handed tone that appeared hypocritical at best. Some solid actors and other filmmakers are wasted here. The DVD offers excellent picture plus very good sound and a few decent extras. If you already know you like Shaft, then you’ll be very pleased with this DVD; it’s a strong effort. Otherwise, it’s a movie to be avoided.

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