www.johnsingletonfilms.com THE FILMS OF JOHN SINGLETON


Shaft poster Cinematically speaking, Gordon Parks' original 1971 Shaft is not a great film. A bit slow at times and more than a little rough around the edges as it builds to its climactic explosion of violent action, this spirited but formulaic yarn that initially brought Ernest Tidyman's "black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks" to the big screen hardly qualifies as groundbreaking filmmaking.

Yet nearly 30 years after its original release--and long after the genre it helped spawn, "blaxploitation," died with that decade--the 1971 Shaft remains an extremely entertaining watch, never having completely escaped pop culture consciousness. The reason for this is the same one that explains the film's connection with moviegoers far beyond the target African-American audience: the title character of John Shaft. While the fact that the strong, smart, virile, and superbly suave Shaft is black is the primary factor for his historical and cultural significance, his broad-based appeal stems from an idea that transcends race: he is comfortable, confident, and proud about who he is, and anyone who had a problem with that could simply kiss his ass.

This fact also explains why John Singleton's Y2G revival of John Shaft is as enjoyable as it is. Much like the film that started the franchise, this Shaft's plot doesn't score points in the originality department, but the energy level and smooth attitude distinguishes it from standard crime thrillers.

Contrary to what has been reported over the past few months, this Shaft is not a remake of the original film, but more of a sequel/spinoff. The star audiences know and love from the original film and its first two sequels (1972's Shaft's Big Score! and 1973's Shaft in Africa), Richard Roundtree, once again plays John Shaft, who still runs a private investigation firm in New York City. However, the focus of the film lies on his same-named nephew (Samuel L. Jackson), who, as the film begins, is a cop whose take-no-crap demeanor constantly leaves him at odds with his superiors. When a privileged young man named Walter Wade Jr. (Christian Bale) accused of a brutal, racially-motivated murder is allowed to be released on bail, a disgusted Shaft leaves the force and decides to take matters into his own hands as a P.I.

But that's easier said than done, for also standing in the way of Shaft and his way of justice is Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright), a Dominican gangster who is hired by Walter to rub out waitress Diane Palmieri (Toni Collette), the only eyewitness to his crime. Peoples--or, rather, Wright is also the big obstacle in Jackson's way toward commanding this film. Peoples is more of an outrageous comic character for most of the running time, and Wright is insanely funny during these stages. However, he isn't so funny as to make the character come off as goofy and buffoonish, and Peoples' eventual turn to more serious villainy is seamless and believable (which probably would not have been the case had he been played by original casting choice John Leguizamo, who bowed out before filming). It's no easy task to steal a film from the Jackson (who is his usual captivating, charismatic self here), but that's exactly what Wright does--and makes it seem effortless.

Then again, with such a talented ensemble surrounding him, it is not too surprising that Jackson's impressive star turn doesn't quite tower over the rest; he is strongly complemented not only by Wright but all his other co-stars. Bale has already proven his ability to play an uppity killer in American Psycho, so it only follows that his performance as a similar, less exaggerated character would be spot-on. Collette lends the film some convincing and welcome dramatic weight as the frightened, conflicted Diane. Busta Rhymes brings some good laughs as Shaft's sidekick Rasaan. Registering not as strongly--but through no fault of their own--are Vanessa Williams (as tough narcotics cop Carmen Vasquez) and a dismayingly underused Roundtree; they simply are given little to do in the script credited to Richard Price, Singleton, and Shane Salerno. (Jackson also has little to "do" in a sense; some throwaway footage during the opening credits aside, his Shaft doesn't even have one sex scene.)

That Singleton once again proves his ability with actors is an especially good thing since he's not really an action director. This is not to say that he does a bad job with the numerous gunfights and the requisite foot and car chases. They move well (as does the film as a whole) and are reasonably exciting; it's just that there's nothing terribly inventive about them. These set pieces are functional in the way the script is: they work well enough, but they're unsurprising and conventional.

But if there's anything that a Shaft movie does well, it's make the familiar look cool--and this Shaft keeps that tradition alive. From the slick title sequence--scored, of course, to Isaac Hayes' ever-infectious Oscar-winning theme song, which Singleton wisely sprinkles throughout the film--on, the film looks great and easily sweeps the viewer into its world with its energetic bravado. Even a common visual trick such as employing fancy wipes for scene transitions not only feels unforced, it feels necessary. Style doesn't exactly make for a great film, but when it comes to Shaft, that's of little consequence. What matters above all else is having a good time, and the latest Shaft should be just the first of many fun rides to be had with this bad mutha--shut yo' mouth.

--Review by Michael Dequina, from The Movie Report#241, June 15, 2000

DVD Review

With its fairly exhaustive edition of Mission: Impossible II, Paramount appeared to turn a corner with what had been their traditionally unspectacular DVD production. The disc for the studio's other big gun for this past summer, John Singleton's entertaining revival of the '70s action icon, finds the studio in a state of retrograde. One of the features trumpeted on the box art (which rather sloppily misspells the title of Singleton's debut feature Boyz N the Hood) is, like on Similarly slim pickings are offered in terms of supplements, but some of these pickings offer a tad more substance than usual. The making-of featurette, "Still the Man," is obviously one of those glorified infomercials that air on premium cable, but this one probes a bit deeper than the usual round of hype; particularly nice is the time spent on Isaac Hayes' rerecording of the legendary Oscar-winning theme song. The disc also includes a valuable feature that I've only seen on Paramount DVDs, which is a collection of cast and crew interviews taken from the film's press junket. As always, there is some overlap in comments with this and the behind-the-scenes featurette, but these interviews offer additional reflection. Rounding out the special features section is the theatrical trailer and two music videos: one for the theme song, the other for R. Kelly's "Bad Man" (especially odd about the latter is how the MTV-esque listing of the artist and track info appears about a minute into the video as opposed to the very beginning, per usual).

As fun as the finished product turned out, the production of Shaft was a notoriously rocky one, and as a result Singleton opted not to record a running commentary track. While the featurette and junket interviews do give Singleton his due say, his lack of involvement in the production of the DVD is especially disappointing considering there are a number of deleted scenes (such as, reportedly, a violent confrontation between Samuel L. Jackson's Shaft and bad guy Christian Bale) that fans would certainly be interested in seeing.

In the end, though, the DVD comes down to the presentation of the feature itself, and in this digital form, the film is as slick as the bad mofo himself--which is pretty much all anyone can really ask for in disc.

Specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; English 5.1 Surround; French Dolby Surround; English subtitles. (Paramount Home Entertainment)

--Review by Michael Dequina, from The Movie Report#262, December 8, 2000

  • Photos from the Shaft set
  • Shaft: The Official Site
  • Shaft @ The Internet Movie Database

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    Photos from the Shaft set

    Shaft then and now
    Shaft then and now:
    Samuel L. Jackson, Richard Roundtree, John Singleton, Gordon Parks


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