If you’ve seen the trailer, you are going to be excited about this blaxploitation revamp. No question. Samuel L in shades, a long black overcoat and a designer goatee? Striding around New York, slapping bad guys upside the head? With Isaac Hayes guitars wah-wahing for all they’re worth? If that doesn’t get your happy gland pumping, then nothing will.
And the finished film has loads of this kind of stuff. It’s a full-on 90 minutes of Mr J – overcoat, goatee, shades – and the head upside slapping of badly disposed gentlemen. With wah-wahing guitars aplenty. But that’s all John Singleton’s full-length film is. Anyone holding their breath waiting for it to add some substance to the superficial flash of the trailer is in serious danger of suffocation. The plot is the kind of clear-cut thing Kojak would have solved and left in a gift-wrapped bundle on his captain’s desk with 10 minutes of the episode still to run. Heavy on set-up and exposition, it buckles under the same weight that brought X-Men to its knees: the weight of franchise expectation.
Playing like the pilot for a TV series, the film Singleton, Jackson and co have actually made was clearly less important to all involved than getting everything set up for the sequels. You can almost hear that irritating studio exec muttering: “Hey, it doesn’t matter if characters and settings crop up for just a few seconds and then we never see them again. We’ll get back to them in Shaft 2...”
It’s an attitude that leads to some awe-inspiringly lazy film-making. The non-Shaft characters are so casually written that only seasoned scene-stealers like Blood Simple and The Usual Suspects’ veteran Dan Hedaya (as one of Shaft’s fellow cops) hold your attention for more than an eyeblink. Basically a post-American Psycho Bateman Lite, Christian Bale’s rich kid hardly seems a worthy adversary; the rock hard Shaft should steamroller him flat in seconds. And even the excellent Toni Collette is wasted, relegated to hanging around whimpering wanly in the background.
But – and it galls to admit it – the new Shaft is still difficult to dislike. It may have almost none of the requirements of a complete, well-balanced film, but it does have the coat, the shades, the wah-wah, and – most important of all – Samuel L. Flying solo above the movie title for virtually the first time, he fills in the gaps in script, plot and characterisation with the grandstanding charm that separates the movie stars from the boys. Throw in a blinding cameo from original Shaft star Richard Roundtree as Shaft’s Uncle J, an ageing private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks (it’s not a remake, it’s a sequel, see?), and you have just enough charisma glue to bind it all together. Just.