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"Shaft" vs. "Shaft"

Review Date:  6/17/00 


My first movie comparison review!  Are your palms as sweaty as mine are?  (Hmm, maybe you shouldn't answer that.)

In preparation for the opening of the new "Shaft" on Friday, Charles "Bionic Commando" Longer and I rented the just-released DVD of the original 1971 "Shaft" starring Richard Roundtree so we could be up to snuff when the update opened.  Besides, I don't think that either of us had seen the original unedited in years, so we figured if anything else, it would a great time watching Roundtree shit-talk his way through the entire movie.

So, here we go.

"Shaft" (1971)

Gordon Parks, Jr. is the director of the first “Shaft”, and his opening montage of detective John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) walking down the middle of New York City traffic head-on and crossing the street illegally is classic.  From the first time Shaft gives a driver the finger to the last scene where Shaft caps a bunch of bad guys and tells off a white cop in a phone booth, you can only get the feeling that Shaft is the coolest, toughest, baddest NYC cop of all time.  Roundtree must have had a blast playing this character as he talks shit to every single character in the movie that isn't one of his tricks (more on that later).  The plot—Shaft must rescue a kidnapped daughter of one of New York's shadiest criminals from mobsters--is not too great, but it didn't seem to matter as long as Parks was injecting the movie with Isaac Hayes' Oscar-winning soundtrack and Roundtree reeling off lines like this one in a coffee shop just after a sex scene:

White Cop:  Okay Shaft, whaddya got?
Shaft [pausing for dramatic effect, then smiling]:  ...I got laid!

And then, he just walks out of the shop!  Music is playing, and Chuck and I are laughing our asses off!  I wanna be Shaft!!  The movie is full of scenes like this, where shaft is beating up bad guys, walking down the street, or getting info from the locals.  (The original movie makes clear that everyone in the city knows who Shaft is.)  The action is not half bad, which is not something I can honestly say about this year's update.  And, Charles and I had to admit that Roundtree himself is a damned attractive man.  I can believe all the hype about him being a sex machine with all the chicks, since he lays all of the women that he comes in contact with in this movie.  Of course, tricks don't get much to do in "Shaft" except...Shaft!  No real lines and their characters are so one-dimensional that it makes you honestly wonder if the director just didn't like women at all.  One of the sex scenes is initiated so fast you wonder if Shaft even got the girl's name before stripping down to the buff!  (As I have said in past Bellviews, the 70s were a time that I just can't begin to understand.)

Overall, the movie is great...good enough to spawn two sequels, "Shaft's Big Score" and "Shaft in Africa," plus a one-season TV show.  The DVD has a making-of documentary, and during this documentary two very important things are shown:  1), a rap session with the director and Isaac Hayes shows how Hayes came up with the now-legendary theme song, and 2) visual confirmation of one of the movie world's best secrets:  afro-wearing white stuntmen that perform difficult stunts for black actors.  Seeing IS believing, my friends!

Rating:  $8.25 Show

"Shaft" (2000)

Last night, I went to see the Samuel L. Jackson update of "Shaft" with a larger gang than I am usually lucky enough to attract (i.e., me):  Claudia Hanna, looking hot in a black and white number but was admittedly close to Peg Bundy in its trashiness; a friend of Claudia's who is dating one of her roomies; Gordon "LD" Stokes--you'll have to see the movie to know what that means--with a look on his face that says "I can't wait for the school year to be over"; Briana "Bree" Zavadil and her "Dolemite"-lovin', "M:I-2"-hatin' boyfriend Rodney.  The verdicts were mixed amongst my crew, and it will be noted that while Gordon and Rodney liked the movie, I fell into a different category.

Here was my basic problem with the movie:  John Singleton's direction.  The director of "Boyz in the Hood" has done, in my opinion, everything wrong since making that movie.  "Poetic Justice" and "Higher Learning" were bad movies, but what made them worse was the unusually high number of stereotypes that plague his films.  Can you remember more racial clichés than "Higher Learning", with its fictional school drawing every single conclusion along racial lines?  Well, that surfaces again in the Singleton-written script for "Shaft", as it seems that every single character in this movie is a racist except John Shaft (Jackson), New York's best detective and nephew of the original movie's shaft, Richard Roundtree.  All of the white cops hate black perps, all of the white characters seem to have it in for black people, all of the black youth in this movie hate white boys.  At least, in the first hour; by the second hour, some of that racism has dissipated and blacks & whites come together as one.  Hmm.

The plot concerns a rich white kid named Walter (Christian Bale, "American Psycho") who loses it one night after being embarrassed in a restaurant and bashes the back of a black kid's head in with a pole.  Shaft shows up at the crime scene, and although there are over 100 people standing around at the restaurant who could be the criminal, shaft walks in, sees a very suspicious looking waitress (Oscar nominee Toni Collette, "The Sixth Sense") and then finds Walter.  Man, that Shaft is good!  It took him about two minutes to find the guy, while 50 or so cops stand around outside eating donuts, talking to citizens crowded around the police tape, blah blah blah.  When Walter--who is white, and therefore, innocent of any possible crime we have in this country according to Singleton--makes a very low bail in court and skips town to Switzerland, Shaft can't believe it and two years pass before Walter surfaces again in New York City.  Shaft promptly finds out which plane he is on from a hot street tip, arrests Walter at the airfield, and puts him back in court only to have a ridiculously over-the-top court sequence where Walter is let loose on bail again.  Shaft quits the police force and vows to take Walter--who befriended a Latino crime boss named Peoples (Jeffrey Wright in a too-thick-to-understand accent) in his one-night stayover in a New York jail cell--down on his own...but finds that he might need the help of Collette to succeed.

I could take five more pages to talk about some of the storytelling problems this movie has, but I just don't want to bore you.  Let's tackle another topic:  Sam Jackson is 51 years old.  51!!  With that in mind, am I supposed to buy that he is a sex machine with all the chicks?  Hell, no!!  But, there Sam is, talking up a 125-year old waitress (if you've seen it, admit it:  she does look old!) in a downtown nightspot, literally saying to her how he wouldn't mind giving her the dilznick (you know, the dong, the missile, the weapon, the tool) right after she gets off of her shift.  Or, how all of the women in this movie save fpr Collette look at Sam's ass after he walks by.  Come ON!!!  I love Sam Jackson, but I never hear women talk about him like he is the second coming of Taye Diggs.

And, have you ever seen a cop hit his target so many times?  I was trying to keep track, but I don't think Jackson's Shaft ever missed a bad guy when he was shooting at them!  Of the 15-20 guys that get lit up in this movie, I think that all of them got hit square in the chest!  Even Roundtree would miss bad guys sometimes in the original "Shaft", so I am not sure why singleton wanted to make the new shaft such a hotshot.  This reminded of some of the old west movies where John Wayne would shoot at a guy with one shot and always hit him right in the gut.  Ridiculous!  Even in "M:I-2," Cruise's Ethan Hunt misses every so often, and that movie is almost a fantasy in its outlandish action sequences.  And, the violence in this movie doesn't really fit with some of the possibly-intentional cheese that the movie contains...heads gets smashed or pistol-whipped by both bad and good guys, a couple of guys get shot in the head and one guy gets his head stepped on by some of Walter's brand new shoes.  But, there isn't enough violence to keep people away from seeing this.

And, the number of great actors wasted here?  Besides Busta Rhymes--the only real comedy that the movie provides--Vanessa Williams, Bale, Collette, Roundtree (in a cameo), Lawrence Taylor (yes, he was good in "Any Given Sunday", so one scene in "Shaft" is a waste to me), and worst of all, Jackson are not well utilized here.  I was really hoping that Jackson was going to have more shit-talking to do than he gets in this movie.  Remember, this is the man that almost singlehandedly revived the f-word on screen!  In this movie, he is often left to simply raise his eyebrows instead of yelling at someone for doing something wrong or evil or stupid.  I KNOW that Sam must have watched the finished product of this movie and was shaking his head after hearing some of the bad lines he is given to speak.

Want more?  How about the scene where Williams, as Shaft's police force partner Velasquez (??), is driving Shaft to a witness and looks up in her rear-view mirror.  "Looks like we're being followed."  I love this.  Sure, this line has now appeared in 15,768 consecutive cop movies, but what is funnier is that when you think about it, do cops or bad guys ever really know when they are being followed?  In the movies, if a car follows you around one street corner, you are instantly being followed!  I love it!  Luckily, there is never more than one car behind the car being tailed, so it is easy to pick out what type of the car the follower is driving.  Or this:  although Jackson is carrying the smallest handgun in the movie, its sound effects are so loud you think that he is carrying a .357 magnum.  Although other criminals are carrying around assault rifles, UZIs and shotguns, they are much quieter than Jackson's gun.  Or this:  Jackson--remember, the FIFTY-ONE-YEAR-OLD Jackson--almost outruns a Latino punk in a chase sequence that is no more than 20...and, after the 20-year-old jumps through two windows and over a 10-foot gap between buildings, you think he has gotten away.  Nope!  Old man river beats the young guy down to the bottom of the stairs and promptly arrests him...bringing gasps of "bullshit!" from moviegoers sitting near me.

All of these problems aside, Sam does look cool in that black leather trenchcoat...although, one gets the impression that the producers liked how good Laurence Fishburne looked in black leather in "The Matrix" and decided to ditto the concept.  Here's to hoping that this "Shaft" doesn't get the sequel treatment.

Rating:  Rental


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
© 1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09