Shaft: the man, the gun, the phallus. The opening credits of John Singleton's new film frantically juxtapose indistinct images of a woman in the throes of ecstasy and glimpses of a firearm being loaded. However, this is as close as it ever gets to its source of inspiration, the blaxploitation classic Shaft (1971) directed by Gordon Parks.
John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) is, all things considered, a relatively gentle and sensitive guy. Although he clearly drives women of all ages into frenzies of longing, and at one point says to an old friend, "It's my duty to please that booty", this Shaft is not the black superstud of the original. In fact, sex seems the farthest thing from his mind. The major trait he shares with the older Shaft (Richard Roundtree, who makes an amusing appearance here) is a wicked laugh.
The heroes of Singleton's movies (Poetic Justice , Higher Learning ) tend to be fixed on big civic issues rather than small personal ones. This has generally given his films a didactic, preachy tone, especially in the film that made him big, Boyz N the Hood (1991). Shaft is his most relaxed effort to date. Its sermon – about urban decay, police corruption and the unfairness of the law – is lightly etched, for a change.
There's a plot in Shaft – of standard, generic issue – but it is mainly scaffolding on which to position an assortment of fascinating characters. Wade (Christian Bale, reprising his American Psycho  role) is a racist yuppie with a sadistic streak. One night at a club, his act of murder is witnessed by the unfortunate Diane (Toni Collette). Diane must go into hiding, but Wade has ways of "playing" the legal system.
Shaft is enraged by this spectacle of escalating injustice. Although he at one point hurls his badge away like the vigilante Dirty Harry, this cop never falls prey to an obsessed revenge kick. Instead, he gathers his understanding comrades – Carmen (Vanessa Williams) and Rasaan (Busta Rhymes) – and methodically chases down the case.
Although the set-pieces are exciting enough, this Shaft does not really aim to be an action-thriller. Nor is it exactly a hyped-up action-comedy in the vein of the Lethal Weapon films. Singleton and his marvellous cast find the humour not in strenuous gags but behavioural details – especially those of the aggrieved drug lord, Peoples (Jeffrey Wright).
This film is tremendous fun. Singleton's craft as a director shows exponential improvement on the levels of visual style and rhythm. He gives the movie a relaxed ambience, defusing the violent sensationalism so common in this genre. And he allows Jackson to savour the role of a lifetime – the very embodiment of Cool.
MORE Singleton: 2 Fast 2 Furious
© Adrian Martin October 2000