John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) is a New York City cop who has been called out just before Christmas to this restaurant to investigate a serious assault. From what he can work out from asking his girlfriend, a black young man was out for a meal when a rich white boy noticed him and started calling out racist comments, seemingly because he didn’t think someone African-American should be there in the first place. The victim then cut a pair of eye holes in a white napkin and jokingly put it over the rich boy’s head, and everyone laughed: the joke was on him. But he didn’t think it was very funny, and Shaft works out this man is Walter Wade Jr (Christian Bale) who is an heir to a fortune. If only there had been a witness to the attack…
What was technically not a remake but the third sequel in the Shaft series was released well after the heyday of Blaxploitation, but the previous decade of the nineteen-nineties had seen much of the pop culture of the seventies become cool again after being laughed at in the eighties, so a revival of the franchise that kicked off the thrillers for black audiences genre was inevitable. The trouble was, by the time a troubled production, with nobody seeing eye to eye on what to do with the character, was finally released to cinemas, we were looking to a new millennium and the shine of the nineties, never mind the seventies, was beginning to tarnish. Not helping was the manner in which they turned it into a police procedural for most of the running time, which by then was pretty old hat.
At least in the movies, for a mostly middle-aged and older audience were lapping up that kind of thing on television every week, and the era when cops and detectives were heroes in blockbuster movies was drawing to a close in favour of superheroes and invincible action protagonists who pulled off the impossible to ramp up the “awesome” factor. This meant there wasn’t so much of a demand to see Jackson, who was regarded as overage, putting away bad guys in the sort of plot that could be disposed of within an hour of TV with commercials. That director John Singleton, who had made his name tackling racial issues, was seen as reduced to the mainstream like this also meant a suspicion about the project.
When Isaac Hayes' classic theme starts up over the opening titles, it’s difficult not to notice it was a rerecording courtesy of David Arnold’s orchestral score and not the original, which for many summed up the issues they had: Richard Roundtree may have reprised his signature role, but he was very much in support, and Jackson wasn’t quite the same kind of presence in movies, with a meaner streak to his characterisations that Roundtree didn’t have. Then there was the social side of things, as this mentioned race as a Singleton film in 2000 might have been expected to, but it was more interested in class and how the wealthy were crushing the poorer underfoot, witness Bale’s reprise of American Psycho as a racist buying his way out of a trial with daddy’s billions. Yet while this might have been seen as a sellout, and the stories of behind the scenes friction indicated an uncertainty with the material, there was a case after the fact that Shaft had been underrated.
It enjoyed a very strong cast, for a start: not just Jackson being the smartest guy in the room or Bale’s slimy bastardry, but Jeffrey Wright as Peoples Hernandez, a mumbling crime lord who manages to get his claws into Wade as a way of expanding his empire, all on the pretence of killing the witness to the murder two years ago. The witness was Diane, a convincingly vulnerable Toni Collette, and in contrast to her Vanessa Williams played a cop who proved female leads in action flicks didn’t need to get kidnapped to be useful to the plot (though she was sidelined too often). As far as the thriller, it had a very decent plot improving on the originals in a manner that updated without betraying them, and by all rights should have provided a strong basis for a franchise revival, but that was not to be, with middling profits and Jackson’s reluctance putting paid to more sequels. What did seem out of place was the hastily dropped sex machine to all the chicks part, it was weird to see Jackson essay the loverman role when we were so used to overgrown adolescents as the only ones quipping about sex onscreen come the 2000s, maybe more our fault than his. But overall, there was a lot to like aside from an ending that rendered the plot a waste of time.