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Laramie Movie Scope: Shaft

A black version of Dirty Harry

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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June 18, 2000 -- Hollywood, always lacking in originality, has resurrected a movie series which started 30 years ago, but at least they've put a new spin on the old "blacksploitation" (meaning movies with black heroes instead of white ones) series. The result could be a new franchise film.

The first sign of hope for this movie is when I saw the name of the director, John Singleton. This guy is outside the Hollywood mainstream. He usually makes small, independent films, including "Rosewood" and his well-known first movie "Boyz 'N the Hood." He's a good director. The other thing this movie has going for it is that classic theme song by Isaac Hays.

This time around Samuel L. Jackson plays John Shaft, or rather the slightly younger cousin of Shaft (Jackson is about seven years younger than Richard Roundtree, who played the original Shaft). Roundtree also appears all too briefly in this film as the elder Shaft, now a successful private detective. The younger Shaft is still on the police force, but not for long.

Our story starts with a brutal murder by an unrepentant, racist, well-connected killer Walter Williams (well-played by Christian Bale of "American Psycho"). When the killer is released on bail, he leaves the country for Switzerland (there was a real case very much like this a few years ago). When it appears Williams' slick lawyers and his money will allow him to escape, Shaft vows vengeance, er, justice will be served as he goes after the killer in his own way.

Like the "Dirty Harry" series of movies by Clint Eastwood, this film walks a tightrope between vigilante vengeance and justice under the law. In a legal system tipped heavily in favor of the rich, the movie seems to argue, you have to take justice into your own hands. In the days of the first "Dirty Harry" films, the message was the liberals had made it too easy for criminals to escape justice and too hard for honest cops to do their jobs. The first "Dirty Harry" film, by the way, came out the same year as the first "Shaft" film.

Things have changed a lot in the last 30 years, but one thing hasn't, "Shaft" is still about racism. The killer is a racist, and, the story argues, he's likely to get away with it, not so much because of racism, but because rich people can get away with murder. Now if a poor black man killed a rich white man, he'd probably end up on death row. Innocent black men have ended up on death row just because the police could make a good case against them. You don't find too many white, rich guys on death row, however. The rules seem to be different for the rich. The "Dirty Harry" series shifted around, taking on different targets, including conservative vigilantes. Can Shaft show the same kind of versatility in the future?

There are some interesting characters in the film, including a local drug lord, Peoples Hernandez (well-played by Jeffrey Wright, who had the title role in "Basquiat"). Hernandez comes off as a character more complex than the usual drug dealer. He's a social climber. He wants respect more than mere money. He latches on to the killer, thinking he can use Williams as a way to achieve those powerful upper class connections he wants. A couple of other characters in the story turn out to be interesting as well, cops named Jack Roselli (Dan Hedaya of "The Hurricane") and Luger (played by Ruben Santiago-Hudson). They aren't what they first appear to be. Vanessa Williams plays Shaft's police partner Carmen. Williams and Hedaya are fine actors, but they really don't have much to do in this script. Also appearing is Toni Collette of "The Sixth Sense". She plays murder witness Diane. Making a cameo appearance is Gordon Parks, who was the director of the first Shaft movie, and one of the sequels. He is seated at a table in a Harlem nightclub.

There is a quite a bit of action in the film, of course, gun fights, car chases, the usual, but it isn't really an action movie, it is more about style, about being cool. It reminds me of those old hard-boiled detective movies like "The Maltese Falcon" or "Farewell My Lovely," where style is more important than story. The movie also achieves a kind of inner-city grittiness at times and it always has a hard edge. The dialogue is clever and witty. There are some funny scenes. Singleton paces the film nicely. Jackson is very good in the title role. He's confident, self-assured, and very capable. He seems at ease in every situation. He's so cool, he never sweats. He may be a vigilante, but he's a cool one, a lot cooler than Dirty Harry was. This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2000 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)