The SmarK DVD Retro Rant for Shaft
“I’m gonna f*ck you up good for making me run!”
For whatever reason, one of my favorite unofficial action movie genres has long been the Maniac Cop movie. Coming from a long tradition and a fine pedigree, the genre essentially began with classics like The French Connection and Dirty Harry and proceeded into the computer age with the most extreme examples of the Maniac Cop character model: Lethal Weapon and Robocop.
Now, technically Shaft falls into the “blaxploitation” category, but I think it fits more comfortably into the Maniac Cop role. At any rate, it made a pretty good profit for Paramount in 2000, riding the momentum of re-making a classic movie and putting Sam Jackson into the role that he was born to play, but it seems to have been quickly forgotten by the DVD-buying public. Thus, I found it in a Wal-Mart bargain bin for $5 and decided to rescue it with a review.
Loosely based on the 1971 film of the same name, Shaft follows the adventures of John Shaft, the nephew of the title character in the original movie. However, whereas the original had the definite 70s sensibility about it (read: lots of sex), the 2000 version is sporting more of a street-cred pedigree, thanks to the efforts of director John Singleton.
As mentioned, John Shaft is a Maniac Cop. Sure, he’s a police officer in name, but he’s the kind of guy who’s a loose cannon, playing by his own rules, shooting first and asking questions later, blah blah blah. His nemesis is of course The Man, personified by future Batman Christian Bale. In this case, he’s portraying that well-worn clichÃƒÂ© of these sorts of movies, the Rich White Kid Who’s Getting Away With Murder. Not quite as over-the-top in subject matter as the cartoonish nature of the original character would seem to suggest, but Bale takes the underwritten character he’s given and imbibes it with a nice creep factor.
The movie picks up two years previous, as rich punk Walter Wade (Bale) gets into a beef with a random black guy in a bar, and next thing you know, you’ve got a dead black guy and a waitress who may have seen something. Toni Collette is playing the time-honored Witness Who Is Afraid To Testify, and doesn’t really have much to work with here. Her testimony becomes moot, however, as Wade skips bail after the initial trial, which leaves everyone wondering why a hate crime would warrant bail in the first place. The answer of course lies in the corruption of the system.
Two years later, Wade returns from exile in Europe and Shaft catches him again, and once again justice fails him, so we get the traditional turning in of the badge and gun (although with a more dramatic twist than you usually see in these kinds of movies) and Now It’s Personal. Wade, on the run after skipping bail again and estranged from his family, hooks up with scuzzy drug dealer Peoples, another underwritten role that gets eaten up by Jeffrey Wright, as he takes a cliched character part and adds a real sense of menace and teeth to it, becoming quite the worthy adversary for Shaft’s superhero cop character in the process.
What really carries the movie between the obvious setup and execution of the hunt for the scared witness and Shaft’s counter-hunt for Peoples and Wade is Shaft’s interactions with the people on the street. One memorable scene sees a desperate mother in the ghetto, who opts to exchange her information on the witness, for Shaft dealing with a street punk who is unduly influencing her son. This leads to an awesome, full-on Sam Jackson moment, as he terrorizes the wannabe gangster and teaches him to fear those bigger and blacker than him.
That’s the real heart of the movie, as Singleton tries to say something beyond the usual cut-and-paste action movie and almost, but not quite, pulls it off. The real problem with the movie is that the cut-and-paste elements are still there, and even the final twist feels like something out of an episode of Law and Order rather than a meaningful statement on the legal system.
The dialogue is smarter than the average action movie, but the characters are right out of the average action movie (I mean, seriously, what purpose does Vanessa Williams serve and who couldn’t guess that she was wearing a vest?) and it kind of evens out in the end. Although Bale and Wright excel as the villains, Dan Hedaya plays his millionth scumbag corrupt cop character and I was frankly shocked that Richard Roundtree wasn’t cast in his usual role as the scowling squad commander. And you probably don’t even need me to tell you that the movie ends with a chase scene.
In the end, enough stuff blows up to keep the viewer interested, and Jackson’s version of Shaft is a very interesting, street-wise guy who has more depth than the average Maniac Cop lead character. And when his new “comedy” with Eugene Levy is released later this year, I’m sure Shaft will look even better by comparison. Sure, he doesn’t spend as much time talkin’ smooth and sticking it to the man as his predessor did, but it’s a different time and he didn’t have the afro to pull it off anyway.
As a full-price purchase, don’t bother, but if you can find it in the cheap bin like I did, jump on it.
I’m not a big fan of Paramount’s mid-level releases in terms of the video quality, and this isn’t an exception to that. Presented in the original 2.35:1 widescreen, the transfer is a bit dark and grainy, but in the rare instances when there’s more than just blacks and greys on the palette, the color is nice. Otherwise, a pretty underwhelming transfer. The layer change at 55 minutes is very noticeable.
Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, and nothing else, it’s the usual hit-and-miss action movie soundtrack. Guns and explosions are booming and aggressive, but when characters have a quiet dialogue moment (like the exceptional one between Wade and Peoples halfway through the movie) you have to crank up the sound, only to get blown through the wall when it returns to action again. Not much on the surrounds, oddly enough.
This is mainly fluff, EPK stuff included for the sake of calling it a “collector’s edition”. You get…
– 12 minutes of fluff interviews with the cast and crew.
– 15 minutes of fluff “making of” documentary.
– Music videos from R. Kelly and Isaac Hayes.
– The trailer.
Nothing to go out of your way for, to be sure.
The Film: ***1/2
The Video: ***
The Audio: ***
The Extras: *1/2