On Auto Pilot
Tonight, on Shaft!
[insert groovy wakka-chicka music here]
An innocent woman witnesses a horrible crime. Can John Shaft protect her from a murderer who’ll do anything to silence her? You damn right he can.
A Quinn Martin Production.
Shaft smells like a franchise from the moment the lights go down, with a credits sequence ready-made for recycling and a theme song you can already sing along with. Cool vibes undulate off the screen, and you think: This is it. This is the new Bond. We are going to drown in cool every other summer for the next decade. Sam Jackson rocks!
Then the movie starts, and you begin to suspect that future installments aren’t going to show up at the multiplex but on the boob tube. With a small treatment of what could have been a large story of murder and corruption (and one that we’ve seen a million variations of) that seems to serve only as an introduction to a stable of characters, Shaft feels like nothing so much as a pilot for a TV series.
Millionaire playboy Walter Wade (Christian Bale: American Psycho, A Midsummer Night’s Dream), son of a Donald Trump-style developer, kills a black man outside a New York nightspot and intimidates the only witness — the club’s bartender, Diane (Toni Collette: The Sixth Sense) — into keeping her mouth shut. NYPD detective John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson: The Phantom Menace, The Negotiator) makes the arrest, but Wade skips bail for the ski slopes of Switzerland. When he returns two years later, Shaft arrests him again, and he pisses Shaft off again by not only receiving bail a second time but by hiring a Dominican drug lord, Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright: Ride with the Devil, Celebrity), to find and kill the only person who can possibly put him away for life: Diane.
Shaft is so incensed by the miscarriage of justice that sets Wade free a second time that he quits the force, and with some Yoda-like advice from his private detective uncle (Richard Roundtree, the original Shaft, playing the same character here), Shaft sets out to right wrongs and kick some ass along the way, with the help of his former partner, the stalwart Carmen (Vanessa L. Williams: Don Quixote), and his comic-relief sidekick, cab driver Rasaan (Busta Rhymes). Which sounds like the pitch for a TV show, no?
Director John Singleton had a hand in the script, along with renowned novelist Richard Price, and it’s from the script that the sense of triviality springs. There are big issues at stake here — such as the difficulty of being a black cop on a mostly white force — and the film doesn’t ignore them. But it introduces them without exploring them, leaving us hanging. The white-on-black murder that opens the film and the subsequent white-glove treatment of the rich suspect naturally inspires a lot of righteous rage from New York City’s minority communities, but we just barely get a hint of that, with merely a group of protesters outside the courthouse for Wade’s bail hearings. The explosive atmosphere of the city is depicted not in the lavish, even ostentatious way you expect to see on the big screen in a big action movie, but as if this were an episode of Law and Order, which has neither the time nor the budget for such a thing.
That’s not to say that a black writer/director and a black star have to make a film deeper and more meaningful than a white director and a white star, because it’s high time we had a black equivalent of John McClane and Die Hard or Martin Riggs and Lethal Weapon. But just as McClane and Riggs live in fantasy worlds, it would have been nice to see Shaft in one, too, where he could just be a cool, kick-ass cop. But Shaft raises serious questions without answering them, leaving us in a netherworld between action and drama that doesn’t quite work on either level.
So Shaft ends up feeling like a paint-by-number action flick done in a darker palette. Yes, it’s terrific to see a black action hero, and no one deserves this kind of starmaking vehicle (for such it still is) more than Jackson, who has the attitude and the personality to carry it off. With his artistic facial hair and a wardrobe no cop could ever afford, including a black leather trench and shades that probably cost a week’s salary, Shaft is ineffably the coolest cop onscreen in recent memory. And Jackson is not just a cool dude: he’s a terrific actor with a wonderfully expressive face. I just wanted him to have a bigger sandbox to play in. Jackson’s is a talent that warrants more than just this movie’s rote shootouts and car chases.
Christian Bale and Toni Collette are also woefully underused, and again the problem is the script. Their characters are ciphers, not real people. Diane is merely the film’s MacGuffin — the one thing everyone, good guys and bad alike, are after — and barely even appears in the film. Wade is bad merely because he’s white and rich, and Bale is never allowed to flesh him out beyond that generic evil. But they do get to show off their skill with accents — even native Noo Yawkas would never guess that he’s Welsh and she’s Australian.
Lots of TV shows turn out much more interesting and complex than their pilots. Maybe this’ll be the case with Shaft. We’ll get a chance to find out, I’m sure, not too many summers from now.