Don’t freak because John Shaft, the black private dick, has been regrooved as an NYPD cop. Samuel L. Jackson, in leather threads by Armani and with an attitude all his own, is the quintessence of cool. Shaft scores by lacing ba-da-boom action with social pertinence. Watch Shaft throw his badge in court. Not quietly. He hurls it like a grenade, narrowly missing the ear of the jowly white judge who just let a murdering, racist, rich white boy, Walter Wade Jr. (Christian Bale), out on bail.
The badge, stuck in the wall, reverberates with this cop’s rage at a corrupt justice system. So does the movie, which John Singleton — the only black man ever to win an Oscar nomination as Best Director (for 1991’s Boyz ‘n the Hood) has crafted in tribute to the 1971 Shaft, directed by Gordon Parks, who has a cameo in the new film. Richard Roundtree returns as the elder John Shaft, the “sex machine with all the chicks” in the memorably funky lyrics from Isaac Hayes’ title song. Jackson’s Shaft, named after his private-eye uncle, is a cop working within the system — until frustration causes him to resign and kick ass on his own time.
It would be easy to dismiss Shaft as a B-movie with pretensions or even as a vigilante’s wet dream. Singleton polishes the black James Bond icon so strenuously that it skirts parody every time Shaft flips off his shades and floats a one-liner (“I may take you down, but I’ll never let you down”). But consider the context. In 1971, audiences were galvanized by a strong black hero. The civil-rights movement had created a hunger, not just for the nobility of Sidney Poitier but for a black cat of disreputable cool. In 1972, Superfly made a hero out of a Harlem drug dealer, but it was the success of Shaft that spawned an era of blaxploitation.
Thirty years later, with Denzel Washington filling Poitier’s shoes, the coolest black cats (Chris Rock, Will Smith, Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence) are ceding action to the white boys and doing comedy instead. That’s why Jackson’s entrance as Shaft delivers such a potent kick. Propelled by the Hayes theme, Jackson is every inch the brotherman in charge. Just don’t expect the “sex machine”: The new Shaft talks a game (“It’s my duty to please that booty”) he never plays. He will, however, punch out a handcuffed racist, pistol-whip a street punk and eviscerate two crooked cops (Dan Hedaya and Ruben Santiago-Hudson) who abet Wade in trying to kill the waitress (Toni Collette) who witnessed his murder of a black student. Cops on the take, circa 2000, need money to send their kids to private schools.
For sheer outsize villainy, you can’t top Jeffrey Wright (Basquiat), who lets fly with a smashing, funny-scary tour de force as Peoples Hernandez, a grandiose Dominican gang lord whom Shaft calls “a two-bit, three-block drug dealer.” The plot is standard stuff — hell, it always was — but novelist Richard Price (Clockers), who collaborated on the script, gives the dialogue a gritty authenticity. It’s also great to see Jackson mix it up with Busta Rhymes as his shady pal, Vanessa Williams as a fellow cop and especially Roundtree. The two Shafts link two generations of moviegoers and make their own kind of history. Right on.