Who's a sex machine? Not this John Shaft – he's a killing machine! And so it goes with this very '90s update of the '70s blaxploitation classic. Whereas the audience for the 1971 Shaft wanted a strong, sexy, no-nonsense black man of the streets, here Hollywood believes today's audiences prefer a sexless black Terminator with an endless supply of bullets and attitude. (Samuel L. Jackson, the star of the film, has made public his disgust with the studio's decision – and director Singleton's acquiescence – to cut the sex scenes; he reportedly sneered, "I guess it's okay for Shaft to kill people, but not fuck people.")
In a nutshell, NYPD detective John Shaft (Jackson) has a score to settle: rich young white bastard Walter Williams (Christian Bale, rehashing his American Psycho shtick) has killed a black man outside a bar, and, after posting bail, runs off to Switzerland. Waitress Diane Palmieri (Toni Collette, even glummer than usual), the one witness to the crime, has disappeared at the worst time: when Williams returns to the US two years later. After Williams is again freed on bail, an angry Shaft quits the force to find Diane on his own, so that she can testify and put Williams behind bars. Meanwhile, Williams teams up with Dominican drug lord Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright, unrecognizable and brilliant) in order to wipe out Diane, Shaft, and anyone else who gets in the way.
The plot thickens, twists, complicates – and in the middle of it is Shaft, killing people, scaring people, swearing at people, and having a grand old time. You can't dislike Jackson; he's just so damn cool to watch. But he has no character to play. Nobody in this movie does. What's more troubling, John Shaft seems to have accepted his place in society: the white world is a separate universe, one in which he will never belong. Just as he takes in stride a motorist calling him a "crack addict", so too does he aim his gun only at other nonwhites. It's unsettling, because ultimately his character becomes irrelevant. Even the movie's shock ending (which I'm not giving away) winds up defining John Shaft as an unnecessary presence in his own film!
Still, it's good violent entertainment, if you're into that, and it breezes along thanks to Jackson's charisma and David Arnold's funky score (to say nothing of Isaac Hayes's indispensable theme song). But if there's any breakthrough in this Shaft, it is Wright's amazing performance, a role that should finally make him a star in his own right.