Samuel L. Jackson got his big break commercially when he played the gunman with an epiphany in Quentin Tarantino's 1994 film 'Pulp Fiction'. He has the looks and the charisma to carry almost any film, except that he's now started to play that Samuel L. Jackson character instead of whoever happened to have been written by a screenwriter. And now, of course, all of Hollywood is writing SLJ characters instead of the ones that might better fit their films.
So it seems natural that when Paramount ordered a remake of Gordon Parks' 1971 original, the one that starred Richard Roundtree as Shaft, the private eye who's hired by a Harlem gang lord to return his kidnapped daughter, Jackson was the obvious choice. This time Shaft is a New York City police detective, and so we're given the obligatory setup in which the bad guy gets away with something because the judicial system couldn't keep him in custody, leading to -- uh, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Christian Bale is the bad guy (and is Bale doomed to play nothing but killers now that he's grown up from the sweet boy of 'Empire of the Sun'?) who's murdered a young black man (Mekhi Phifer in a small but wittily handled scene), forfeited bail thanks to a rich father, and fled to Europe.
Shaft announces, to us and the world, I guess, that he will wait till the guy returns and nail him for good this time. Meanwhile he gets involved with trying to put away a local drug lord (Jeffrey Wright in an over-the-top Hispanic accent that's the best thing in the film). By way of backstage gossip the writer of Wright's lines, a white, Richard Price, was the cause of great havoc on the set when Jackson reportedly refused to read anything a white man had written, but you don't want to hear that. However, it might explain why there's a bizarre, unmotivated gap in the story's timeline: Early on, Shaft announces that he's leaving the force in disgust, but then after a gap of two years we see that he's still on the force.
At any rate, Jackson, clad always in his Armani black leather, strides through the film righting wrongs like some latter-day John Wayne, minus the horse, of course. There's more, including poor Toni Collette, in what must be the worst role of her career, as a frightened waitress who saw the murder but is too scared to testify against Bale, and Vanessa Williams, who's barely in the film as Jackson's erstwhile police partner. The filmmakers have brought back the smooth and suave Roundtree, this time as Shaft's uncle, who runs his own private detective business and asks young Shaft to come work for him. He would have made a wonderful foil for Jackson had he only been given something to do, say like teaming up with him to catch the murderer, but you get the feeling that Jackson didn't want to share the film with anyone else more than was absolutely necessary, and the film pays the price. Somehow Jackson must have thought an hour and a half of black Armani striding through town would be enough to carry the film. It doesn't.
John Singleton directed, without any noticeable sign of the touch he showed so well in 'Boyz N The Hood'. But then he has no real characters to work with here.