`Shaft' sequel kept the funky music and hired Samuel L. Jackson - a cool cat who also can act

Movie review

XXX "Shaft," with Samuel L. Jackson, Vanessa Williams, Jeffrey Wright, Christian Bale and Busta Rhymes. Directed by John Singleton, from a screenplay by Richard Price, John Singleton and Shane Salerno, based on the novel "Shaft" by Ernest Tidyman. 95 minutes. Several theaters. "R" - Restricted because of violence, language and mild sexual situations.

One of the hottest actors from the '90s is playing one of the coolest characters from the '70s, and the result is a fun, summer action movie that, like "Mission Impossible," could turn into a franchise.

Many people may not remember this, but the original "Shaft," released in 1971, wasn't a great film. A blaxploitation flick without much 'sploitation (no nudity, little violence), it had two things going for it: the funky guitar beat of Isaac Hayes' theme, which won an Academy Award for best song, and Richard Roundtree, who, while not the greatest actor in the world, was a strong leading man who looked good in leather.

For this "Shaft," the filmmakers wisely kept the original music - there's no rap version foisted upon us - and hired Samuel L. Jackson for their leading man, an actor who not only looks good in leather but can act. It doesn't hurt, either, that Jackson, particularly since his Oscar-nominated turn as Jules in "Pulp Fiction," has wide crossover appeal.

What's abandoned is the original plot. Instead of rescuing the kidnapped daughter of a black gangland boss, this Shaft, the nephew of the original and a cop rather than a private detective, finds himself in the middle of a hate crime. A black kid has been bludgeoned to death outside a bar by Walter Wade (Christian Bale), the white, privileged son of a well-connected businessman.

Wade skips bail to Europe, only to return two years later. He hooks up with another Shaft nemesis, a Dominican drug lord named Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright, best known as the titular painter in "Basquiat"), and the two search for Diane Palmieri (Toni Collette), the sole witness to the murder.

Amid various subplots, the thrust of the film is this: Whoever finds Palmieri first, wins.

Director John Singleton, who hasn't had a hit since 1992's "Boyz N the Hood," keeps the movie zipping along so well that inconsistencies are glossed over. After Wade posts bail a second time, for example, he and Shaft walk down the courthouse steps eyeing each other; then Shaft taunts Wade by pulling out Palmieri's driver's license, which he picked up the night of the murder. To what end?

It simply reminds Wade that there's a woman out there who can finger him. It endangers the woman's life and Shaft's case. In other words, it doesn't make a lick of sense from within the context of the movie. Only from without, from the audience perspective, does it make sense, because it gives the film its impetus.

The cast, for the most part, is strong. Vanessa Williams turns in an unglamorous, low-key performance as Shaft's partner, Wright steals several scenes as the Dominican drug lord, and Bale plays a steel-boned creep to perfection. Busta Rhymes provides unnecessary comic relief, but there are welcome cameos from Richard Roundtree as the original Shaft, and Gordon Parks, the director of the first "Shaft" movie, as a friend at a bar.

But this is Jackson's film. Whenever he isn't on the screen - which isn't much - the movie flags. He's still got those crazy Sam Jackson eyes, but he's in control of himself and every situation he comes across, and craziness plus control equals power.

He confronts all injustice - even mild racial epithets tossed about by other cops - and complains to his uncle that he feels "too black for the uniform, too blue for the brothers." Three times during the course of the movie he quits the police force, only to return. It's a nice balancing act, making him blue enough for white audiences, black enough for black audiences.

What's missing, interestingly, is the sex. The original Shaft, remember, was a "private dick who's a sex machine to all the chicks." This Shaft is still getting some, but we never see it. This could be indicative of the genre (American action heroes shoot real guns but have implied sex), or a marketing decision (white audiences aren't quite open-minded enough for that kind of action from their black heroes).

In the end, though, it's just nice to see Jackson, the hardest-working actor of the '90s, start the new century with such a bang. Can you dig it?