Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, March 29, 2017


I suppose it says a lot about the brand recognition of “Shaft” that, even as a clueless suburban 12 year old in 2000, I knew who John Shaft was. Isaac Hayes' theme song really had saturated the pop culture to that large a degree. At the time, I had never seen any of the original film but knew that Shaft was the coolest cat around. So rebooting the series for then-modern audiences made a lot of sense. As a new millennium dawned, a new “Shaft” would strut onto theater screens. The reboot starring Samuel L. Jackson, the biggest black star this side of Will Smith, just seemed natural. John Singleton being behind the camera also made a lot of sense. Despite having so much in its favor, 2000's “Shaft” came and went without making much of an impact. Yet is it possible that this “Shaft” was actually ahead of its time?

Though it was sold as a remake, 2000's “Shaft” is actually a stealth sequel to the original series. Samuel L. Jackson plays John Shaft the Second, nephew to Richard Roundtree's original Shaft, who has a bit part in the film. (This is despite Roundtree only being six years older than Jackson.) This Shaft is a police officer, frustrated by the limitations of his job. When Walter Wade Jr., a racist son of a white millionaire, casually murders a black man and gets away with it, Shaft nearly leaves the force. The rich psycho skips bail and leaves America. Two years later, he returns. John Shaft is committed in pursuing the case, determined to get the one witness to the crime to speak out against Wade. The situation is made even more dangerous when Wade forms an alliance with a gang of drug dealers.

Samuel L. Jackson's Shaft is quite different from Roundtree's original. He's not as smooth or cool. This Shaft is more of a raw nerve, wearing his volatile emotions on his sleeve. When he's pissed off, his eyes bulge in the kind of glorious rage that Jackson specializes in. He's much less of a lady's man. Women are interested in him, and he reciprocates, but he's far more preoccupied with serving justice. Mostly, Jackson's sense of humor is really different from Roundtree's. Shaft '71 spun sarcastic lines into full blown belly laughs. Shaft '00 is funny when casually intimidating crooks and thugs, in a way that inevitably recalls “Pulp Fiction's” Jules. In fact, Singleton's “Shaft” repeatedly references Jackson's popular collaborations with Tarantino. None of these are criticisms, exactly. This is a different character, a different Shaft, and Jackson is always entertaining. But it certainly leads to a much more tonally different film.

At the time, the main villain in 2000's “Shaft” didn't seem very intimidating. Test audience's found Jeffrey Wright more compelling than Christian Bale's Walter Wade, causing re-edits that emphasized the former over the latter. In 2017, this element seems frighteningly prescient. A white man murders a black man in cold blood and uses his wealth to escape justice. Who would've thought that the real life version of this story would've been more terrifying, because he wouldn't need to flee the country? Because the attacker probably would be a cop and the victim probably would be a child? Bale's Wade is startlingly close to life as an entitled, racist piece of garbage. The murder was spurned because he ruthlessly bullied a black man for no reason and got called on his bullshit. In a time when white supremacists have reinvented themselves as a mainstream political party, populated by people who make shit eating grins and bait racial violence, this plot element hits almost too close to the heart.

With all this in mind, 2000's “Shaft” could've been an intense thriller about fighting against a disgustingly resistant form of racism. Instead, it quickly dissolves into a typical story of a renegade cop fighting drug dealing bad guys. Jeffrey Wright's Peoples, a small time dealer who hopes to build an empire, is played as partially sympathetic. He nurtures his infant son. When his brother is killed in a shoot-out, he launches into a grief-filled, suicidal rage. These are interesting touches but Wright plays the part so broadly, that Peoples becomes a standard bad guy. His ruthlessness, which includes shoving screwdrivers into snitches' hearts, drains him of any humanity he might've earned. His gang provides an endless horde of goons for Shaft to blast. The dirty cops in his employ – itself something of a cliché – just exist to add more twists and turns to the plot. Too often, the film barely feels like a “Shaft” movie. It could've been any police-based action flick.

By the way, that action is pretty cool. The shoot-outs are compelling and bloody. The bullets hit with a powerful impact, people thrown backwards by the shots. The sound design is excellent, the audience feeling like the projectiles are whizzing by our ears. The violence has weight and meaning. The tight spaces of front porches or city alleyways are utilized to up the intensity of the shoot-outs. A car nearly runs over Shaft in one scene. In another, a vehicle is used to toss an attacker back. As Shaft closes in on Peoples, the film bursts into an especially tense car chase. Singleton's direction sometimes overdoes it with the slow motion but usually he knows what he's doing. 2000's “Shaft” makes a lot of mistakes but its action sequences aren't one of them.

As you'd expect, this “Shaft” was made with eyes towards a franchise. With a big name star playing an iconic character, that should've been a sealed deal. Yet production was hectic. The studio wanted to downplay the racial and sexual elements of the script. In other words, the stuff that made the original special. Jackson and Singleton didn't get along and both were frustrated by the meddling executives. The movie went out to mediocre box office, despite an advertising push that included music videos and action figures. This fraught production is clear in the finished product, a sporadically interesting film pulled down by routine elements. There's been rumbling recently of a new reboot. Maybe in 2017, a new “Shaft” could acknowledge the racial tension this version hinted at but couldn't commit to while still maintaining the trademark sense of cool. That would be a remake worthy of the name. [6/10]

[X] Afros or Sideburns*
[] Brothels or Pimps
[] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
[] Homophobic Caricatures
[X] Inner-City Setting
[] Night Club Act
[X] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[X] Racist Authority Figures
[X] Sticking It to the Man
[X] Sweet Love Makin'**
[X] Use of Street Slang

*Sideburns, no afros.
**Clips from a deleted love scene play during the opening credits. Which just barely counts.

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