Investigating a nightclub murder, Detective John Shaft (Samuel L Jackson) arrests the obvious suspect: billionaire’s son Walter Wade Jr (Christian Bale), who soon skips bail and becomes a fugitive, apparently disposing of the only witness, Diane (Toni Collette), along the way.
Two years later Wade returns to face charges, although his motive is to track down Diane, who had fled in fear of her life. In jail, he meets Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright), a drug lord also arrested by Shaft, and the pair conspire to track down and murder Diane. When Wade is granted bail, Shaft quits the force, and plans his own special farewell: stealing the cash intended to pay for Diane’s demise, he sets up some of his corrupt former colleagues. As his enemies increase in number, the ex-cop decides to find the errant girl and put a stop to Wade once and for all…
For a man who contributed to the revisionism of Black Cinema, John Singleton is happy to revisit the tone and values of a less liberal era, recycling some of the clichés that held the original 1971 movie together. Yet it’s a wise move, allowing him to trade off the image made famous by Richard Roundtree (who gets a cameo role here) and the superb Isaac Hayes score (virtually untouched) while adding enough of his own energy and intelligence to satisfy modern audiences.
Arguments with producer Scott Rudin led to negative coverage, with the leading man – a substitute for Don Cheadle, if you believe the rumours – accused of prima donna antics, and the director reported to be more dedicated to ‘auditioning extras’ than wrapping his film. As seductive as those stories are, Shaft is simply too polished and entertaining to have been savaged in the editing suite. Jackson taps into his unique iconic appeal to create a morally ambiguous figure, part lawgiver and the rest vigilante, suited to the fragile relationship New Yorkers have with their police force. From the supporting cast, Toni Colette (once again) shines, bringing a peripheral role centre stage to make this so much more than a tired and formulaic retread.
USA / 2000
Director: John Singleton
Writers: Richard Price, Shane Salerno, John Singleton, from the story by Ernest Tidyman
Cast: Samuel L Jackson, Vanessa Williams, Jeffrey Wright, Christian Bale, Toni Collette