Home to Roost

Made on the cheap by MGM to capitalize on the market revealed, during the spring and summer of 1971, by Melvin Van Peeble's infinitely more incendiary Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, the original Shaft generated two quick sequels, a short-lived TV show, a series of paperback novels, and a long-running Burger King commercial. This black private eye had all the James Bond franchise essentials: guns and pulchritude, a one-syllable brand name with trademark attitude, and a theme that's been inscribed on the world's DNA. You tell me why it's taken 27 years for Hollywood to follow up on Shaft in Africa.

That said, John Singleton's Shaft update—with Samuel L. Jackson taking over the family business from his Uncle John (the original "bad mutha," Richard Roundtree)—is no less mediocre than the original, which, even in its day, was outclassed by Superfly and Across 110th Street. Still, the icon remains: Resplendent in his leather duster, Jackson (who has long since established himself as Hollywood's Mr. Volatility) stalks through the movie with a hard stare and a major chip on his shoulder—at one point marching off down a midtown Manhattan avenue in the fire lane, against traffic.

Carrey with his whippersnappers, Anthony Anderson, Jerod Mixon, and Mongo Brownlee
photo: Twentieth Century Fox
Carrey with his whippersnappers, Anthony Anderson, Jerod Mixon, and Mongo Brownlee


Me, Myself & Irene
Directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly
Written by the Farrellys and Mike Cerrone
A 20th Century Fox release
Opens June 23

Chicken Run
Directed by Nick Park and Peter Lord
Written by Karey Kirkpatrick
A DreamWorks release

Directed by John Singleton
Written by Singleton, Shane Salerno, and Richard Price
A Paramount release

An NYPD detective rather than a private dick, the new Shaft resigns from the force to become a righteous trickster vigilante dude. That his real home is showbiz is made clear with a scene at an all-star Harlem bar whose resident bon vivant is Uncle John and whose other patrons include Gordon Parks (director of the first two Shaft movies), a former Giants football star, and one of the second-string doctors from E.R. The bartender is poet Sonja Sohn, apparently rendered speechless when the script dictates that Jackson lean over and leer, "It's my duty to please that booty."

Shaft is basically a posture-fest fueled by ethnic jive and racist invective—Christian Bale's American Psycho has been transposed to this world as a ready-made villain. Jackson's credibility is not enhanced by the Fu Manchu beard that appears to have been painted on his face like military camouflage—it's even upstaged by the elaborate wig-sideburns-tattoo ensemble sported by Jeffrey Wright's Washington Heights coke lord. Indeed, as a Spanglish-hissing bantam with social aspirations, Wright steals the movie in the most hilarious bit of method acting since Lincoln Center honored Al Pacino. (On the other hand, the white extra required to exclaim, "This is wack!" has nothing on Jim Carrey's reading of the same line in Me, Myself & Irene.)

As an action flick, Shaft is clumsy out of the gate and overfond of hurtling stuntmen through windows. As judicious editing prevails over the pointless camera moves (if not over the stiletto wipes), the various narco-bust and bumper-car segments are respectable; when all else fails, the filmmakers manage to get a rise out of the crowd by cranking up Isaac Hayes's newly gussied theme.

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