Shaft, directed by John Singleton from a script he cowrote with Shane Salerno and Richard Price, is a sequel/tribute to the most famous blaxploitation picture of them all, yet if you watch the original ”Shaft” now, it all but goes to sleep after the opening credits. That title sequence, of course, is immortal: Richard Roundtree with his lover-man ‘fro, strolling through a nippy Times Square as if he owned it, while Isaac Hayes, on the soundtrack, mythologizes the post-’60s pride of African-American machismo with his honey-smooth basso profundo. The rest of the movie is like a mediocre ”Kojak” episode set in the black criminal underworld. Even Roundtree, I’m afraid, is distressingly mild. He saunters with the best of them, but he has more chops as an image than he does as an actor.
Released in 1971, ”Shaft” was a significant hit, and it proved instrumental in opening the door to the meaner, funkier, less varnished inner-city flamboyance of films like ”Superfly,” ”The Mack,” and the rowdy kick-butt oeuvre of Pam Grier. The new ”Shaft” has been made in the flippantly aggressive, down and dirty spirit of those later, superior films. As John Shaft, a veteran New York detective who quits the police force to bring a wealthy preppie-scum killer to street justice, Samuel L. Jackson, looking about seven feet tall in leather coats that hang like capes, is himself an image to command attention, what with his triple-pronged goatee and a bald dome as exquisitely imposing as that of the Wizard of Oz. Jackson, however, is playing the original Shaft’s nephew, and unlike Roundtree (who’s on hand for a cameo), he has attitude to burn.
The film establishes its casual, sleight-of-hand volatility from the moment Shaft lands a violent smack on the face of Walter Wade Jr. (Christian Bale), a smug blue-blood racist who has almost certainly murdered the young black fellow (Mekhi Phifer) who had the gumption to stand up to his vile taunts. Since Shaft has no legal right to rough up a suspect, a grouchy cop orders him to get ”gone” from the precinct. ”Gone?” says Shaft. Then he wallops Wade again. ”For what — THAT?” Jackson has the audience eating out of his fist from the moment he tosses off that nimble, ”Gee what’d I do?” that.
Don’t get me wrong: ”Shaft” is no white-bashing fantasy. It’s a mean and lively urban cross fire, with racial cracks ricocheting off each other like popcorn, and shoot-outs staged with such hair-raising finesse that they just about cleanse the air. The movie’s neo-blaxploitation politics could be described as righteous indignation lite. Shaft, the black cop, knows that the (white) system is rigged to protect people like Wade, the son of a real estate magnate. And so he sets up an elaborate rattrap to catch him, only to find an extra rat or two inside.
Chief among the rodents is Peoples Hernandez, a neighborhood coke dealer with enough arrogance in his short, pumped body for six drug kingpins. He’s played, in an explosively funny performance, by Jeffrey Wright, who is scarcely recognizable here from his brilliant turn as the rag-doll wastrel aesthete of ”Basquiat.” Sporting dagger sideburns and a George Michael Caesar, and speaking with a Dominican accent so lushly indulgent it makes Al Pacino’s Cuban cottonmouth in ”Scarface” sound like a George Plimpton impersonation, Wright takes a cliché — the hotheaded Latin street prince — and pushes it into operatic satire. The movie brings the rich white boy in communion with this drug dandy, as Wade offers Peoples $40,000 to kill the terrified bartender (Toni Collette) who’s the lone witness to Wade’s crime. But Shaft steals the cash, setting off a chain of elaborate double crosses.
I enjoyed the zesty convolutions of ”Shaft,” but the plot goes a little haywire. I could have lived with less of the doofus corrupt cops played by Dan Hedaya and Ruben Santiago-Hudson and more of Peoples’ scheme to force Wade into becoming a society drug courier (a great idea that goes nowhere). Too many semi-developed characters put too much distance between our hero and his prey. That said, the movie lives up — or is it down? — to its legacy; if nothing else, ”Shaft” is spicy fast food. The difference is that this now comes close to passing for Hollywood haute cuisine.