Samuel L. Jackson walks manfully through much of the new Shaft in the latest NYPD-issue Armani. He’s a clotheshorse cop who appreciates a sense of style in the criminals he collars, but who could possibly match up to him? You get the distinct feeling that John Shaft is outraged more by the dress-down couture of his crooks than by their crimes. The first Shaft, starring Richard Roundtree and directed by Gordon Parks, was slapdash except for the sleekness Roundtree brought to it; the film was set up as a black private-eye thriller, but its real subject was stylishness as a form of militancy, and that was a pretty good and sustaining racial joke at the time. It still is. The so-called blaxploitation-movie cycle of the seventies turned the race-baiting tactics of white Hollywood inside out. Whites were demonized and marginalized in ways that blacks so often had been in the movies, but in the end the new approach wasn’t any more appetizing than the old approach, except perhaps as payback experienced by black and bleeding-heart white audiences.
The current Shaft, directed by John Singleton and co-written by Singleton, Richard Price, and Shane Salerno, preserves the race-baiting essence of the genre, but it’s cannier about it; the film’s chief villain, played by American Psycho’s Christian Bale in what amounts to an encore performance, is a spoiled rich scion who might look best modeling an Armani Klan hood. Shaft’s righteous fury in nabbing this guy is given Dirty Harry overtones: The corrupt justice system protects these moneyed scorpions, so Shaft’s only recourse is to toss his badge and go vigilante. At one point he says he’s “too black for the uniform and too blue for the brothers,” and it’s a good line except that it remains just a line – the dilemma is never dramatized in the movie. Despite a tossed-off comment about Mayor Giuliani, there’s no real reference to New York’s racial police politics either. In other words, the new Shaft is just as much a fantasyland as the old Shaft. The big difference is that now Shaft is so burned-up about everything, he doesn’t have time to be a sex machine. Under the circumstances, the revived Isaac Hayes theme song seems more like a taunt than a tribute.