American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
John Singleton's "Shaft" is a blaxpolitation film with a modern urban drama trapped inside. Or maybe it's the other way around. On the one hand, we have John Shaft telling a pickup, "It's my duty to please the booty." On the other hand, we have a scene between a rich kid and a drug dealer that's so well written and acted, it's chilling.
At the center of the tug of war, pulled both ways and enjoying it, is Samuel L. Jackson, as a tough cop who throws his badge back at a judge (literally) and becomes a free-lance vigilante. The story's broad outlines are familiar not only from early 1970s black exploitation movies, but also from the early "Dirty Harry" pictures, and when a top cop orders Shaft to get out of his precinct, it's like he's reciting dialogue from the classics.
The movie has the obligatory elements of black exploitation (big cars, drugs, cigars, guns, sleazy nightclubs, gold chains, racism, babes, black leather coats, expensive booze, crooked white cops). But a newer sensibility sneaks in, probably thanks to a screenplay primarily by Richard Price, who wrote "Clockers" and specializes in dialogue that allows the characters some poetry; I like lines like "It's Giuliani time!" On top of reports that Singleton and Jackson had many disagreements on the set, there were stories that neither of them much liked the Price screenplay, maybe because it nailed the small moments but missed the broader Shaftian strokes. Whatever compromises were made, the result is a movie more interesting than it might have been: not just a retread of the old movie, but Shaft as more complicated than before, and with well-observed supporting characters.
Jackson is at the center of the action, "too black for the uniform, too blue for the brothers," wearing a wicked goatee that looks like it was designed by a comic book artist. He's a cop made angry when a rich man's son (Christian Bale) murders a black youth, gets an easy bail and skips to Switzerland. As one of the first on the crime scene, Shaft believes that a waitress (Toni Collette) saw more than she admits. Two years pass, the rich kid returns to the country, Shaft nabs him, and then the plot involves his partner (Busta Rhymes), the drug kingpin (Jeffrey Wright), the sexy narcotics cop (Vanessa Williams), the larcenous cop (Dan Hedaya) and his partner Luger (Lee Tergesen). Always look twice at a cop named Luger.