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Bald Is Beautiful: Samuel L. Jackson shaves it all off to star in John Singleton's new version of '70s classic 'Shaft.'

'Shaft' Scores

Original music guarantees a good time at Samuel L. Jackson's remake

By Richard von Busack

THEY DIDN'T SCREW UP the theme song! Preliminary clips made it seem likely that some red-hot hip-hop group would do its cover version of the "Theme From Shaft" with a big, badly written spoken-word essay to Shaft slapped into the middle, full of forced rhymes and out-of-date slang. But if such a song exists, it dwells only on some Music Inspired by the Film CD; what we hear in the new movie version of Shaft is the 100 percent idiot-proof, as-advertised theme from the original. Right over the Paramount logo comes the wakka-wakka-wakka keyboard and thump-of-doom piano chords of Isaac Hayes' answer to the "James Bond Theme," while a black-clad Samuel L. Jackson, noble head shaven, strides purposefully around Manhattan. The new Shaft justifies critic Manny Farber's suppositions that really what an audience wants to see is a movie star move--to watch him walking, preferably in a city. Jackson is one hell of a walker. In one scene, he walks against three lanes of traffic, and the cars politely veer to give him a wide berth--no one dares honk a horn at him.

With the great theme right in place, half the battle is over. Hayes' music is expanded by composer David Arnold, whose John Barry-derived score invigorated the 007 movie Tomorrow Never Dies. Still, Jackson's detective John Shaft isn't "a sex machine with all the chicks," despite some sort of unsexual understanding with his police detective partner, played by Vanessa Williams. This Shaft is a comedy, with some killings at the heart of it. It's an impossible film to take seriously, less film noir and more The Big Sleep. The audience ripples with laughter hearing a TV news report: "New York Police Detective John Shaft today apprehended .. ." It's not a real-world scenario when Shaft is such a bulletproof superhero. (When I saw the original, I remember being quite disappointed that he wasn't a secret agent.)

The ancient Dirty Harry scenario--cop handcuffed by the courts--sets Shaft on an unbadged mission to find a witness to a hate killing. The murderer, who got away scot-free, is a spoiled young Trumplet (Christian Bale, still in American Psycho mode; no one looks crazier than a former child actor). In the meantime, Shaft tangles with a drug lord who calls himself Peoples, played by the remarkable Jeffrey Wright, who debuts here. Co-screenwriter Richard Price, who has been so excellent at giving urban devils their due in his novels Clockers and Freedomland, makes Peoples a poignant figure; he's even carrying a baby around on his shoulder at one point while trying to keep his Washington Heights drug kingdom in order. Wright has a unique accent--he's supposed to be Dominican--and he has a suave, comic, wounded-looking face and a notched eyebrow, in honor of Marlon Brando, whom he resembles. Wright reminds me of how fine Cesar Romero was in the late shows. Romero was a horror clown even before they put the clown-white makeup on him, and Wright has the same mix of sweetness, dignity and homicidal rage. John Singleton's Shaft is a fast, diverting entertainment. "Can you dig it?" Hayes asks in the theme song. The answer is, Yes, this Shaft is very digable.

Shaft (R; 98 min.), directed by John Singleton, written by Singleton and Shane Salerno, based on the novel by Ernest Tidyman, photographed by Donald E. Thorin and starring Samuel L. Jackson, Vanessa Williams, Jeffrey Wright and Christian Bale, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the June 15-21, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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