John Shaft is back, in the form of Samuel L. Jackson, but there's something missing from the latest "Shaft," now playing at area theaters.
Oh, Jackson is cool enough for the role, no doubt about that, with shaved head, intimidating glare and ankle-length black-leather coat. He plays the kick-butt black detective-action hero with the screen presence of a raging bull.
Directed by John Singleton, Jackson comes across as an avenging angel, in keeping with the original version reprised by Richard Roundtree in three highly popular "Shaft" films in the 1970s.
But Jackson fails where Roundtree succeeded -- in giving Shaft an unwavering sense of justness, humanity and integrity that appealed to the audience, despite the character's unconventional, often lawless methods.
In contrast, the modern Shaft seems as evil, cruel and unforgiving as the racist killer he pursues, shedding Roundtree's knight-in-shining-armor appeal as easily and as surely as spouting bullets from his pearl-handled gun.
Shaft is reincarnated 25 years after the original as a New York police detective with a giant chip on his shoulder and a murder to solve.
A white guy (Christian "American Psycho" Bale) has murdered a black guy and the only witness (Toni "The Sixth Sense" Collette) has disappeared to avoid testifying.
Villain Walter Wade (Bale) is a stereotypical spoiled rich kid who arrives for his scenes in yacht-size limos and private jets, Daddy's high-priced lawyer never far behind.
Shaft, in charge of the case, makes bringing Wade to trial his private crusade, eventually leaving the police force to pursue his own brand of vigilante justice.
The key, of course, is finding the witness -- waitress Diane (Collette) who watched Wade strike the murderous blow -- and Shaft leaves no stone unturned, even if it means beating up a teen-age drug dealer, shooting a couple dozen gang members or exposing the witness' life to assassins sent by Wade.
Roundtree -- as Shaft's Uncle Shaft -- makes a couple of appearances as the owner of a private detective agency trying to recruit his nephew, providing continuity from the earlier films.
Vanessa Williams plays a police detective -- for once, she keeps all her clothes on -- who gives Shaft a helping hand, and rapper Busta Rhymes surfaces as Shaft's streetwise sidekick.
But the best film chemistry occurs when Wade meets Peoples Hernandez (Tony winning Jeffrey Wright), a Dominican drug lord.
They encounter each other first in an electrically charged jail scene and later in the drug dealer's Manhattan pad, where they strike a deal to murder the witness and get rid of Shaft.
As an action film, "Shaft" offers plenty of jolts and a modestly interesting script. But it's tough to tell the good guys from the bad. That could be a fatal flaw.
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