In 1971, when Gordon Parks' Shaft came out, the idea of a swaggering, sexually assertive black action hero was still novel, if not downright revolutionary. Nearly three decades later, the cocky black action hero is the rule rather than the exception, which may be one reason John Singleton's reworking of Shaft is so dull. The original Shaft isn't a great film, but much of what made it enjoyable was watching Richard Roundtree smoothly navigate his way through vastly different worlds, gingerly toying with the mob, black revolutionaries, and white cops. But Samuel L. Jackson's Shaft is very much a modern action hero, more likely to beat a suspect into submission than smooth-talk a confession. Saddling a coasting Jackson with three unnecessary sidekicks (Busta Rhymes, Richard Roundtree reprising his role as the original Shaft, and Vanessa L. Williams), this Shaft concerns a racist killer (Christian Bale) who attempts to silence the sole witness (Toni Collette) to his brutal murder of a young black man. Much is made of his supposed sexual prowess, but Jackson's private dick seems far too preening and self-involved to lavish affection on anyone other than himself. Unlike Roundtree's Shaft, Jackson is a fighter, not a lover, deriving far more pleasure from pistol-whipping drug dealers and repeatedly punching suspects than from any of his largely off-screen conquests. What's perhaps most surprising about Singleton's poorly paced, unevenly written genre exercise is that it has no real take on the Shaft mythology: It isn't subversive or postmodern, but it isn't respectful, either. If it was Singleton's intention to turn Shaft into just another generic, obvious, unnecessarily violent thriller, he's succeeded.
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