- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2000

When the original "Shaft" was released in the summer of 1971, MGM thought it helpful to invoke mentors: "Hotter than Bond, cooler than Bullitt" the ad copy claimed.
As a matter of fact, Bond had cooled appreciably because Sean Connery was estranged from the series and came back later that year as a kind of visiting dignitary in "Diamonds Are Forever."
Steve McQueen was a little beyond his coolest year, 1968, when both "Bullitt" and "The Thomas Crown Affair" were in circulation. It might have been more accurate to boast, "More engaged than Bond, more talkative than Bullitt."
Anyway, "Shaft" seemed a diverting mercenary entertainment in 1971: a conventional private-eye thriller superficially updated by glorifying a resourceful, coldblooded, smarty-pants black protagonist, Manhattan shamus John Shaft, impersonated by a good-looking newcomer, Richard Roundtree, who had enjoyed more success with modeling than acting.
The shabbier aspects of the movie, which obliged Shaft to juggle adversaries in the mob and the police force, lent themselves to remedy in sequels, assuming those sequels showed a little class.
They didn't. The character, invented by novelist Ernest Tidyman, who worked on the original screenplay for director Gordon Parks, was exhausted promptly in a pair of sluggish replicas, "Shaft's Big Score" and "Shaft in Africa."
An amazing meltdown, the franchise had self-destructed two years after it started. No Bond resemblances there.
Now revived and updated with a comparable lack of class by Paramount, "Shaft" fails to take advantage of a fitful family connection. The director of the remake, John Singleton, appears briefly in a scene with Gordon Parks, sharing a corner table at a Harlem restaurant.
It's a nice gesture. Another one might have held the key to a smarter movie: The John Shaft now impersonated by Samuel L. Jackson as a maverick homicide detective is presented as the namesake of the original, his uncle, again embodied by Mr. Roundtree, looking very prosperous and serene in middle age.
We're led to believe that Shaft the Elder has been urging his nephew to join the Shaft detective agency. Evidently, the lone-wolf thing was overwhelmed by prosperity. Considering the way the movie's plot bogs down and unravels while Shaft the Younger remains a loose cannon with the New York Police Department, you rather wish he had switched to the private sector with Uncle John before a script was authorized.
Ostensibly, Mr. Jackson's character sticks with the force because he's determined to nail a homicidal brat played by Christian Bale, obviously Hollywood's favorite choice as affluent white psychopath this year.
A rich young wretch called Walter Wade, he is apprehended and then roughed up by the hero after assaulting a young black man.
The victim dies, and Wade skips, returning two years later, when the case has turned really cold as a movie pretext. Shaft's big priority, locating elusive eyewitness Toni Collette, can't survive the time lapse with a sense of suspense or urgency intact.
Moreover, Wade's nefarious activities link up with a criminal character so corruptly amusing that he steals the show: Jeffrey Wright as a disarming drug thug who calls himself Peoples Hernandez.
Whether fencing with Mr. Bale or Mr. Jackson, this soft-spoken ethnic monster becomes the justification for the whole movie. If one were devising ad shorthand for the new "Shaft," it might go something like this: "Jackson's got the role; Wright saves the show."
When this playful character study is added to "Basquiat" and "Ride With the Devil," Mr. Wright begins to look like one of the best secret weapons on the American screen.
Something of a chameleon, he has altered his appearance in all three movies. Only the most observant spectators probably would recognize him from project to project and get full satisfaction from his versatility.
"Shaft" no doubt will open with name recognition from its leading man and 1971 prototype. It's likely to survive only as a Jeffrey Wright cult classic.

One and a half Stars out of four stars
TITLE: "Shaft"
RATING: R (Frequent profanity; occasional sexual vulgarity and graphic violence, with gruesome illustrative details)
CREDITS: Directed by John Singleton
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes

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