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The carnage is up and so are the cliches in Singleton's remake of 'Shaft'

Friday, June 16, 2000

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

The body count is only slightly lower than the Battle of Waterloo's in John Singleton's remake of the 1971 hit "Shaft." To be otherwise would be to disappoint the expectations of young 21st century audiences who have come to see Samuel L. Jackson outdo Richard Roundtree in the original.


Rating: R for language and extreme violence

Players: Samuel L. Jackson, Vanessa Williams, Jeffrey Wright, Christian Bale

Director: John Singleton

Web site:

Critic's call: 2 1/2 stars


I'm not sure such bloodshed succeeds, but it doesn't fail to supply the kind of vigilante violence in which this "Shaft" dresses for box-office success.

Jackson as the title character is in pursuit of a rich white kid (Christian Bale), who has brutally slain a black man, skipped bail and escaped abroad. So arrogant is the murderer, and so sure of his father's ability to buy him out of the corrupt justice system, that he returns two years later and gets bailed out again. Shaft quits the police force in protest, while Bale embarks on a new round of criminality in league with an effete Dominican druglord named Peoples (Jeffrey Wright).

Effete Dominican druglords are a unique breed, to say the least. But so is Shaft who, without benefit of portfolio, makes it his mission to nail the killer no matter how many people (all guilty) must be incidentally slaughtered along the way.

But only I and Sarah Brady are concerned about the niceties of due process. Charleton Heston, the NRA and thrill-seeking teen movie-goers will approve the carnage as a sterling example of the right to enjoy and rampantly employ arms. Under that interpretation of the Second Amendment, cool-cat Shaft is fully justified in taking the law into his own hands in general and, in particular, ordering sidekick Vanessa Williams (quite good here) to dispatch a crooked cop on the spot. His Miranda variation is, "You have the right to remain noisy -- and be blown away."

Bale, fresh from "American Psycho," is effective, as is Busta Rhymes in a nice bit as Shaft's street-smart friend. Wright, who won a Tony for his performance in "Angels in America," is perversely fascinating. In studying for his part, he mastered the Dominican lifestyle and accent ("Ju follow heem, unnerstan'?") and, we are told, even went to a Dominican barbershop in Jersey City for a haircut -- something Sam Jackson had no need to do.

But the plot is too clever by one-and-a-half. Toni Collette (Oscar-nominated for "Sixth Sense") is wasted as the elusive mystery witness -- so elusive we don't know what, why, or whom she's eluding 'til she ends up a hostage like many so many useless film-chick hostages before her.

In similar film tradition, the criminals never shoot straight and all need an NRA training session. The only thing they ever hit is fire escapes, fences and other things that make nice sparks. Shaft, on the other hand, never misses or hits anything other than their hearts.

There are 79 uses of the f-word in this script, but who's counting? Me. It's the sort of thing I do to pass the time when my attention wanes.

Look for legendary director Gordon Parks -- who made the landmark original -- in a cameo appearance at Harlem's Lenox Lounge.

Excuse me for running off now. I have a sudden irrepressible urge to find something in the back of a drawer: my Isaac Hayes LP and gold chain, if not my hairy chest, from 1971.

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