More a cookie-cutter tough- cop- who- plays- by- his- own- rules shoot-'em-up than an updated Blaxploitation action flick, John Singleton's "Shaft" revival features loud hand cannons with endless rounds of ammunition, handsomely gritty five boroughs photography, a killer pimp soundtrack (naturally) and Samuel L. Jackson appropriately cast as that bad-ass cultural icon, the private dick who's a sex machine to all the chicks.
Writer-director Singleton -- who at age 23 made the powerful portrait of day-to-day urban danger "Boyz in the 'Hood" then went into a career slide with "Rosewood," "Higher Learning" and "Poetic Justice" -- chose to bring back the series rather than remake this genre classic. Instead he updated it by having Richard Roundtree revive his role as John Shaft and have Jackson play his nephew -- a New York cop whose disregard for the rule book gets the job done but makes him a nightmare for his superiors.
As such, the new "Shaft" doesn't have much to offer creatively. The witness-protection plot is utterly generic stuff (crooked cops, vato gangsters, etc.) and Singleton, smelling a potential franchise here and not about to rock the boat, plays the picture 100-percent by the book (ironically).
Without the overstated sexuality, the distinctive afros and glorious cheese factor of its 1970s inspiration, this "Shaft" depends on its large personalities. Fortunately with Samuel L. Jackson copping huge bad dude attitude in the lead, that's not a problem.
Shiny bald and decoratively bearded (his facial hair looks almost like fire painted on the side of a funny car), sporting an Armani leather duster and expensive shades he can peel off to reveal his deadly stare for dramatic effect, Jackson is smooth-baby-smooth as John Shaft. He can make a dirty come on ("It's my duty to please that booty.") sound smooth, he's quick on the trigger and even quicker with the smack talk. "It's Giuliani time," he says when he's getting ready to dispense some street justice.
Almost as memorable are the film's two antagonists. Christian Bale ("American Psycho") is positively repulsive as a snide rich boy on the lam and on Shaft's hit list after beating a black guy to death for dating a white girl. Jeffrey Wright ("Ride with the Devil"), who cops almost as much attitude as Jackson, makes something unique from his stock Puerto Rican gang leader, seeking revenge on Shaft for humiliating him.
Singleton's choice to jettison the Blaxploitation flavor for a more modern, gritty cop flick motif, comes as a disappointment. I mean, the trappings of the genre were half the fun of the '70s "Shaft" flicks. But Singleton does stick to old school action: A ghetto foot chase, a grills-in-the-camera car chase and a couple duck-and-cover shoot-outs are the movie's big set pieces -- not excessive explosions photographed in slow motion from 18 different angles.
These scenes are pure tradition, but other story elements feel more like they're second-hand goods. The movie might have been better if Singleton had sought ways around the cop movie clichés that pepper the script and been a little more subtle about wanting to pilot his picture onto the sequel fast track.
But while the new "Shaft" may be far more forgettable than its namesake, the flick has soul, brother. And when we're talkin' 'bout Shaft, that's what counts.