on June 16, 2000 by Michael Tunison
   What's the flick that won't cop out when there's danger of cheesiness all about? For once, the studio's ad tagline is dead-on--"Shaft" is very much still the man.

   He's not, however, exactly the same cat he was when Richard Roundtree headlined the 1971 blaxploitation classic of the same title. Roundtree's John Shaft was a lusty, two-fisted heartbreaker--"the private dick who's a sex machine to all the chicks," as Isaac Hayes' theme song announced. Reinterpreted by volcanic actor Samuel L. Jackson ("Rules of Engagement"), the new Shaft (apparently the original's nephew) is a cooler, more intellectual crusader, without a single love scene to slow down his private war on injustice.

   This pessimistically toned reworking of the idea by director/co-writer John Singleton ("Boyz N the Hood") revolves around a young white man ("American Psycho's" Christian Bale) whose wealth seems to guarantee he'll get away with the cold-blooded killing of a black patron at a swank bar. So outraged he can barely contain his anger, NYPD detective Shaft makes it his business to take the killer down--even if it means losing his badge. It's material as grim as America's long-festering racial problems, minus the simplistic answers Hollywood usually supplies in its mainstream films.

   In scenes that bear the unmistakably hard-edged stamp of co-writer Richard Price ("Clockers"), Singleton and company develop their characters to a degree that's rare in modern genre films. Jeffrey Wright steals the show as a tattooed druglord with dreams of acceptance in high society, but Bale's racist villain and a frightened eyewitness ("The Sixth Sense's" Toni Collette) also have unusual dimensions to them. Roundtree himself even shows up to pass the torch as "Uncle John." He must be proud to have a nephew so capable of living up to the family name. Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Vanessa Williams, Jeffrey Wright and Christian Bale. Directed by John Singleton. Written by Richard Price, John Singleton and Shane Salerno. Produced by Scott Rudin and John Singleton. A Paramount release. Action. Rated R for strong violence and language. Running time: 109 min

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