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Film review: Shaft

Who is the cat who's got racial insensitivity down pat? Shaft! Can you dig it?

Who is the man who gets away with it because he can? Shaft! Oh, yeah!

Who's the poor sap whose film is just a piece of. . . .

Oh, never mind; you get the picture.

The big-budget remake of the 1971 cult hit "Shaft" is a real dud.

It's also one of the most virulently racist films in recent memory, with such ugly ethnic and racial stereotyping that it may make you want to squirm uneasily in your seat — if not ask for your money back.

To be honest, with the exception of the casting of Samuel L. Jackson in the lead role — which almost goes awry — the only thing the filmmakers have gotten right here is including Isaac Hayes' much-adored Oscar-winning theme song.

Of course, to have to sit through even a few minutes of this surprisingly lame thriller just to hear the song is much too steep a price to pay.

And if you're going just to see Jackson, that's not worth it either. He stars as John Shaft, a New York City detective frustrated with the criminal justice system.

To be more specific, he's irked because it has allowed one of his suspects, bigoted rich kid Walter Wade (Christian Bale), to skip the country without standing trial for murdering a young black man.

However, he gets another chance to nab him when Wade returns to the United States a couple of years later. Now all he has to do is track down a reluctant witness, waitress Diane Palmieri (Toni Collette). The trouble is, she doesn't want to be found or testify.

What the now-former detective also doesn't realize is that his two enemies have joined forces. Wade has paid Dominican drug dealer Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright) to silence Diane before she can finger him. And if he can take out Shaft, then so much the better.

As you can probably tell, this is a far cry from the original film, and it's one that is designed to push people's buttons, with broad swipes at the U.S. justice system (particularly a troubling ending), at bigotry in police precinct houses and at racially motivated crimes.

But it's hard to figure out exactly what director/co-writer John Singleton was trying to prove with the broad characterizations here. While they echo the original "blaxploitation" films, that kind of tomfoolery doesn't fly in today's more politically correct times.

And his posturing often comes at the expense of the storytelling, since the action scenes lack the energy and ingenuity to make them exciting.

He doesn't seem to have done much in the way of "directing" his cast members, either.

Jackson plays Shaft much like Jules Winnfield, the character he played in "Pulp Fiction." He's full of quips and profanities but little else. But he's certainly miles better than the miscast Bale and especially, Wright, whose exaggerated accent is downright embarrassing.

There's also no excuse for Singleton squandering the talents of two good actresses, the misused Collette and Vanessa Williams, who plays Shaft's all-too-tolerant partner.

"Shaft" is rated R for violence (brawling, gunplay, mayhem), frequent use of strong profanity and racial epithets, gore, crude humor (including a toilet gag), brief simulated sex and female nudity and a brief scene of drug manufacturing. Running time: 98 minutes.


E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com