Samuel L. Jackson

SHAFT: super-empty but super-cool thrills (2000 in Film #24)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of June 16th, John Singleton’s Shaft

Once again, this week, I’m handing over to the recurring spectre of 2013-era Tony who last looked at Shaft and devoted some thoughts to it, and once again I’m forced to make a confession: I still haven’t seen the original 1971 Shaft.

As a result, what I continue to wonder is whether I got from the 2000 sequel Shaft–and we must so denote the year as there now, as of 2019’s third sequel, three movies all in continuity and all just called Shaft–what I should have taken, not being conversant in the original. This Shaft, of course, wants to place a stamp on popular culture at the turn of the millennium by replacing Richard Roundtree as lead with Samuel L. Jackson, arguably sailing at the height of his career following his legendary turn in Pulp Fiction, a career that has never entirely faded. Jackson has made a fair amount of dross in the subsequent two decades but he remains in that elite tier of stars who are still A-list, still a household name, and thanks particularly to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, still appearing in the biggest films in Hollywood.

Sadly, we did lose before his time the film’s director, Singleton, who died just aged 51 in 2019 and remains a sad loss not just to African-American cinema, but Hollywood in general. Not all of his films were great, indeed Shaft itself is by no means a great film, but he remains influential to the burgeoning, potentially great black filmmakers of the 2020’s – Ryan Coogler, Steve McQueen, Ava DuVernay etc… all of whom have taken the gauntlet lain down by directors like Singleton and Spike Lee and ran with them. Shaft, in that sense, deserves to be remembered much like its well-known, 1970’s predecessor, and that is perhaps why this version is both a remake of sorts, *and* remains in continuity (a trick repeated by the 2019 Shaft), which was rare in cinema then and remains rare now, to serve both of those masters.

Time then to turn over to 2013-era Tony for his thoughts on whether Shaft lives up to the hype. Let’s find out…

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT: A military drama scared to face its demons (2000 in Film #14)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of April 7th, William Friedkin’s Rules of Engagement

My question for William Friedkin in regard to this film is quite simple: did he steal the plot of Rules of Engagement from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine?

In that series, the character of the noble Klingon Commander, Worf, is tried by an extradition hearing after, during hostilities between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, he commands a vessel that fires on and destroys a civilian transport ship which he believes is a Klingon warship. That episode is called, yes… Rules of Engagement, and it aired just three short years before Friedkin’s film came to bear. Perhaps the original writer, James Webb, saw the episode, liked the title and premise, and ported them over. Stranger things have happened! Either way, Rules of Engagement probably shares this coincidence for the simple fact it treads a well-worn story in fiction, science-fiction, and any morality-based dramatic narrative.

Friedkin’s film, eventually written by studio-hired scribe Stephen Gaghan from Webb’s original screenplay—one of two films penned by Gaghan, the other being Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic at the end of the year, for which he would win an award—directly concerns the United States military and their own, titular, rules of engagement in a combat situation. Samuel L. Jackson’s Colonel Terry Childers, while leading a Marine squadron to evacuate an American diplomat and his family from an under-siege Yemeni embassy, orders his men to fire into a crowd of protestors, some of whom appear to have opened fire on his men. 98 men women and children end up slaughtered. Images make the front page of every global newspaper. And the US government want Childers’ head on a spike, forcing him to enlist his old friend—Tommy Lee Jones’ military attorney Hayes Hodges—to defend his honour.

What ends up happening is that the subject matter, and what it wants to say about modern American imperialism, is more interesting than Rules of Engagement turns out to be in execution as a film. …

From the Vault #15: STAR WARS EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from May 28th, 2014, as we close in on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

It was back in 1973 that the beginnings of what would become Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith came to life, as George Lucas roughly mapped out the entire Star Wars saga without specifics four years before Episode IV would take the world by storm and create a cinematic legacy unlike perhaps any other before or since.

Much as the previous two prequels underwhelmed significantly from a creative standpoint, leaving many fans with a sense of caution going forward, few would deny Revenge of the Sith remained much anticipated. This was the story we had all been waiting for – forget the preamble and effectively set up of The Phantom Menace & Attack of the Clones, this would be where it all came together, Lucas ready to show us just how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader & the Galactic Empire rose from the ashes of the Jedi. How could such an epic tale three decades in the making fail? The good news is, well… on the whole it doesn’t.

Revenge of the Sith is by some distance the finest Star Wars prequel and though it can’t quite sit on a par with the original trilogy, it skirts close with a combination of epic visuals, narrative power and finer characterisation than the previous two movies combined.

Cinematic Universes: the divisive wave of cinema’s future

With the advent of Justice League, many fans and commentators are once again discussing the concept of the ‘Cinematic Universe’, given the formative attempts by DC Comics over the last several years to emulate the rampant success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the first truly successful and revolutionary cinematic model of an overarching mythological world of characters and narratives informing one another. Inevitably with the internet, it’s leading to a war of trolls – Marvelita haters and DC sceptics waging a pointless conflict over territorial ownership and trying the answer the utterly subjective question – ‘which is better?’. For every critic who tells you the MCU is technically stronger as a tapestry, you’ll easily find more than enough ‘DCEU’ defenders to race in with their Amazonian swords and claim everything Marvel has done is powerfully overrated. There can be no victor in such a battle.

In truth, discussion of the Cinematic Universe has never gone away. Hollywood and the blockbuster movie system has been utterly consumed and dominated by the power of a connected storytelling model, following the template Marvel Studios laid down. It has arguably changed the very fabric of the cinematic franchise. Following the essential advent of the ‘blockbuster’ in the mid-1970’s with Jaws and of course Star Wars, it took Hollywood a while to truly embrace the idea of creating what we accept as a ‘franchise’. Sequels had always existed – we can go back as far as 1916 indeed for the first recognised follow up, Thomas Dixon Jr’s The Fall of a Nation, which carried on the story from DW Griffith’s historically polarising The Birth of a Nation – but it was truly the 1980’s that gave birth to the notion of a franchise, once Star Wars developed sequels to George Lucas’ game-changing original movie and developed an entire cinematic eco-system around the property.

Sequels, nonetheless, remained *sequels*. Film number two. Taking the characters and situations from the first successful picture and moving them in new directions, though not always. Many sequels in the 80’s and 1990’s simply re-trod all of the same beats people loved about the first movies, mostly with diminishing returns. That’s what made The Empire Strikes Back so powerful; it took Star Wars and those characters truly in new, challenging directions and forever altered their destinations. Not every sequel took such a bold leap forward for its characters and narrative. Many played it safe, an accusation oddly levelled at some of the recent cinematic universes which were born out of the ashes of continuing storylines.