It's a peculiar feeling to realize that Isaac Hayes -- in his deeply guttural but mellifluous croon -- has lied to you. "Who's the black private dick who's a sex machine to all the chicks?" Hayes sings in the opening credits of director John Singleton's "Shaft," a quasi-sequel to the 1971 blaxploitation classic.
"Shaft!" the chorus replies. "Damn right!" Hayes shoots back.
That affirmation held water 29 years ago, when director Gordon Parks introduced one of the first African-American cinematic role models, John Shaft (played by the unknown Richard Roundtree). But times change, and for all the between-the-sheets savvy Hayes promises, it's clear that this supposed sex machine just ain't getting any in the new millennium. He's still a fireball, with his Armani threads, towering posture, ballsy verve and a newly tongue-in-cheek demeanor that undercuts the original film's thudding seriousness. But for someone whose name is probably the most crass double entendre in film history, he doesn't knock boots once in the entire movie.
Perhaps that's because it's not the "real" Shaft we're following, but his nephew and namesake, played by Samuel L. Jackson. (Roundtree guest-stars as the genuine article.) Unlike his uncle, Shaft 2K is a New York City homicide detective, albeit an avenging loose cannon who quits the force, rejoins and quits again. At one point, he resigns by flinging his badge, ninja-star-style, into some wood paneling. This bit of showmanship is intended to demonstrate our hero's bravura and street cred, but it also emphasizes that he has a badge. No "private dick," he works for The Man.
He does, however, place a greater reliance on vigilantism. The old Shaft was just trying to do his thing in a white man's world; the new model is a "Take that!" kind of guy, raging against the machine. While his tenacity and brutality are played mostly for cathartic entertainment value, the film reeks with a healthy, timely distrust of our governing institutions.
But these ideas are delivered with little subtlety. The film betrays a ham-handed, stereotypical view of race relations, with black folks the targets of malt-liquor and chicken-wing gibes. One expects better from a screenwriting team that includes crime novelist Richard Price ("Clockers") and "Boyz N the Hood" writer/director Singleton.
In their scripted effort, Jackson's character dogs the wealthy Walter Wade (Christian Bale), a suspect in a racially motivated killing who skips town after his bail hearing. Diane Palmieri (Toni Collette), a probable witness to the crime, is mysteriously (but not coincidentally) missing in action. Wade enlists Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright), a preening Dominican drug lord, to find the jittery Diane before Shaft reaches her first.
In presenting us with two antagonists, the "Shaft" writers aren't taking any chances. Bale's one-note turn as an icy, snotty sociopath is carried over from his starring role in American Psycho, but the addition of Wright ("Basquiat") is inspired. Not above playing along with the film's campiness (which nearly verges on comedy), he still manages to be archly menacing. Jackson earns props for adeptly playing ball with the flawed script, but it's Wright who transcends the material. He truly is "Shaft's" big score.