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Non-Review Review: Shaft (2000)

It feels like something of a backhanded compliment to describe Shaft as John Singleton’s best movie since Boyz n the Hood. Singleton has been one of those directors who has found himself living in the shadow a tremendously influential and successful debut, struggling to find a way to match or surpass it. I think that his take on the most famous blaxploitation hero of all time, while deeply flawed, works so well because it seems intentionally light. It’s not attempting to be big or epic, or even especially socially conscious, it’s just trying to be a decently entertaining – if slightly cheesy – little thriller.

Who's the cat who won't cop out when there's danger all about?

And, to be honest, it starts out wonderfully. The movie opens with a lengthy prologue set two years before the rest of the movie, which establishes everything that’s going on, and opens with a racially-motivated murder by a white yuppie at Christmas time. In these sections, Singleton excels. It seems like the type of police procedural you’d see on any given CSI show (complete with witness statement flashbacks), but executed with a funk befitting the lead character. It’s cool, but it’s also serious.

As played by Samuel L. Jackson, Shaft is very much the textbook definition of cool, even when dealing with something that’s horrible and probably all-too-real. Primarily, Shaft seems like a character who doesn’t take all the crap the world throws at him with the calm and objectivity that we expect police officers to – he feels it, while seldom letting it control him. It’s not necessarily a professional approach and it’s not as dispassionate as we might expect, but it does give the icon a bit of personality and immediately distinguishes him from the leads in most modern cop movies or television shows.

They say this cat Shaft's a bad mother-

In these opening few minutes, Singleton moves the plot remarkably fast, calling to mind the wonderfully kinetic approach that you’d see in some of the classier seventies films. The entire process of investigating the murder, finding a suspect, arresting him, and his subsequent escape, all play out with great speed and clarity, scored by an impressively funky David Arnold soundtrack. But it wouldn’t be a Shaft film if it didn’t have a funky soundtrack, would it? Singleton uses the type of old-school scene transitions we rarely see these days, which serve to add an old-school vibe to the film. For the opening few scenes, the movie feels like the classiest and most skilful homage to seventies crime cinema that I’ve ever seen.

Even the clichés feel like a confident stylistic touch rather than the product of hackneyed writing. When Shaft inevitably strikes the racist douchebag played so perfectly by Christian Bale, his superior is quick to declare, “I have been waiting all year for that! You are gone from this precinct!” All of this is incredibly predictable, but Singleton executed in such a confident manner that it’s easy to get swept along for the ride. I think the film might have managed to be truly great if it maintained that sort of energy through its runtime. However, problems start to develop once the movie jumps forward two years.

Skipping Bale...

It seems like Singleton, or the movie, loses a lot of energy at that point. Suddenly the clichéd moments seem a lot less endearing, becoming somewhat lazy and hackneyed. Shaft finally brings in his man, and the precinct breaks into spontaneous applause. “You the man, Shaft!” Shaft somehow finds the energy to throw his badge across a courtroom with enough energy to plant it in the wall (while not spending a night in the cells for contempt). There’s a supporting character played by Busta Rhymes who fills the movie’s awkward “unfunny comic relief sidekick” quotient.

In fairness, the film never really takes itself too seriously, but it doesn’t seem to know how to balance itself anymore. In particular, the film ends on a note about the cycle of violence and tragedy, in what probably should be an emotional moment, but it seems so completely at odds with what we’ve seen and enjoyed so far that it might as well have come from a different film. The film starts playing up the comic and cheesy aspects of the material so heavily that it’s hard to take it seriously when it wants us to. I know that this sort of cheese was present in the films that inspired Singleton’s remake, but it doesn’t seem to work in the context of the film Singleton’s trying to make.

A couple of Shafts...

That said, the movie has a superb cast, and they’re the ones that manage to hold what’s left of the plot together. In particular, Jeffrey Wright is the only actor who seems able to balance the drama and the comedy, being equally menacing and hilarious from scene-to-scene. One highlight has him explaining that he doesn’t have to money to pay two employees, because the carrier misplaced it. “He got mugged. That’s like act of god.” Samuel L. Jackson is smooth and confident in the lead, and Bale is solid support. Singleton seems to populate the film with HBO alumni, and I think that the movie’s the better for it.

It’s a shame that the movie can’t really keep it together. In fairness, I think it’s the same sort of problem that movies like The Expendables face – it’s hard to homage a cheesy and frequently terrible subgenre without taking on some of the more cringeworthy traits, which makes it difficult to watch, because nostalgia tends to filter those from the original film. Singleton’s Shaft is undoubtedly less silly and less cheesy than the Richard Roundtree original, but it’s still more cheesy than we might have expected – because we probably remember those original films as being better than the actually were.

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