It was the year the Beatles broke up, Nixon was in the White House and the Vietnam War intensified. The 26th Amendment was passed, hot pants had become the rage and Charles Manson and his followers were convicted in the Tate-La Bianca murders. The TV shows "All in the Family" and "Columbo" debuted, and at the movies "The French Connection," "Diamonds Are Forever," "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" and "Dirty Harry" packed them in at the theaters.
Thus, a film about a black detective hired to find a kidnapped daughter of a Harlem gang lord couldn't possibly have made much of an impression, right? Probably not, unless the year was 1971 and the film was "Shaft."
One of the first films to put an African-American in the role of the hero and serving as the catalyst for kicking off the "blaxploitation" craze, the film might not have been great, but it featured a cool theme song (that won an Oscar for Isaac Hayes - it also received a nomination for Best Dramatic Score) and an even cooler hero in the form of Richard Roundtree as "the black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks."
Sporting a whole lot of attitude and style, the film was so successful that it spawned two sequels, countless imitators and even a short-lived TV series by the same name. As such, it's of little surprise - except for the number of years that it's taken - that Hollywood has rediscovered the film, recycled it, and then unleashed it on the masses hoping to capitalize off the original's fame with older viewers and turn it into a new franchise for the younger ones.
Of course, maybe the forces that be were waiting for just the right actor to come along and replace or at least follow in Roundtree's footsteps - someone with the perfect combination of attitude, charm, brawn and a hip style. With those requirements in mind, there was only one solution possible and the filmmakers found it in Samuel L. Jackson. Having proved his mettle in plenty of films such as "Pulp Fiction" and "Jackie Brown" - two Quentin Tarantino pictures undoubtedly influenced by director Gordon Parks' original film -- Jackson steps into the character as if it's always been his.
Now, Jackson, the filmmakers and the studio are quick to point out that this isn't a remake per se of the original film - after all, Jackson plays the nephew to Shaft who's embodied once again by Roundtree - but the spirit, tone and style are all pretty much the same.
Starting with the familiar strains of the theme song (once again voiced by Hayes) to the inner-city settings, crime, corruption and the title character's unique way of coolly handling things, the film is all about attitude. In fact, it clearly works best when Jackson is in full "bad ass" mode, dispensing his characters own brand of justice whether as a cop or private eye.
At times it also turns into one of those cathartic vigilante movies where audiences root for the hero to kick some criminal butt, thus allowing them to get out their frustrations vicariously through that character and his actions and no-nonsense attitude. It's the stuff that made the likes of characters played by Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson big "anti-heroes" in their heyday. Of course, it may go a bit far in that direction at times - as Shaft shoots and kills plenty of people despite doing so as a civilian and thus risking facing the long arm of the law himself -- but it still manages to work, at least for the most part.
As directed by John Singleton ("Rosewood," "Boyz N the Hood") who works from his screenplay adaptation with Richard Price ("Ransom," "Sea of Love") and Shane Salerno (co-writer of "Armageddon"), the film's story obviously isn't exactly concerned with realism, nor is it anything that's particularly special or novel. After all, we've seen the same basic plot or variations thereof in countless other inner-city cop films and TV shows.
Addressing the realism or credibility factor, the film loses some points simply for straining what's commonly acceptable. Not only do Shaft's police buddies literally let him get away with murder and plenty of other mayhem that would create a public relations nightmare for any city's police department (in this day and age of increased allegations of police brutality), but other stupid and/or illogical material is also present.
While the notion of Shaft becoming such a vigilante is done so to please the audience, it's a bit hard to buy since he wasn't directly affected by the catalytic crime (such as having a close-friend or family member murdered) to cause such a reaction. In addition, with such a quick temper and extreme physical reaction, it's highly unlikely he could have stayed on the force so long, or that he would have been reassigned after an initial punching incident.
It's also unlikely that a judge would allow the prime suspect in a murder case to post bail a second time around after he jumped it the first time and fled the country for two years. While that's a necessary event for the subsequent plot, and certainly a possibility in today's often illogical legal world, it strains credibility a bit too much.
Then again, the whole thrust of Shaft needing to find a witness to the initial murder - which fuels most of the plot - should have been shored up a bit. As it stands, the reliance on her as a witness is something of a moot point since the killer was seen antagonistically dealing with the victim and then getting mad over being the butt of his joke, leaving the establishment at the same time, and was then being found with the victim's blood on him.
Nonetheless, the filmmakers and their film are more concerned with attitude and vengeance than substance and realism, and they get that and more from Jackson's performance. Few performers today can emote the same level of collective rage, humor and style as can Jackson (not to mention the ability to add something unique to spewing profanity), and he single-handedly carries the film that, without him, would have been just a standard cop flick.
Despite getting the official second billing, Vanessa Williams ("Light It Up," "Eraser") doesn't offer much as his on again, off again cop partner and certainly doesn't get a lot of screen time. Instead, the scene-stealing award goes to Jeffrey Wright ("Hamlet," "Basquiat") who delivers an inspired, and often funny performance as the better drawn of the two main villains. Christian Bale ("The Portrait of a Lady," "Empire of the Sun") plays the other half of that criminal duo, but doesn't do much more than just extend his run with the volatile psychopath he played in "American Psycho," although he does bare more than a striking resemblance here to Tom Cruise from his "Cocktail" era days.
Supporting performances are solid, with Toni Collette ("The Sixth Sense," "Muriel's Wedding") credibly playing the frightened and reluctant witness, Dan Hedaya ("Dick," "Clueless") and Ruben Santiago-Hudson ("The Devil's Advocate," "Blown Away") playing the corrupt cops, and rap artist turned actor Busta Rhymes ("Higher Learning," "Strapped") appearing as the comic relief to the film's more serious and violent moments.
While the underlying story could have used a lot more polishing to make it cleaner, more involving and credible, Jackson's performance as the titular character all but makes up for any misgivings or problems the film otherwise experiences. Certain to become a crossover hit with mainstream moviegoers, the film might not be great, but it's oozing with more than enough attitude and style to make it fairly entertaining as long as you don't mind the vigilante violence and near nonstop profanity. As such, "Shaft" rates as a 6 out of 10.