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and Gary Goldman

The original Shaft was decidedly pulp fiction, but it packed more cultural resonance than any of the didactic, schematic films John Singleton started making two decades after the “blaxploitation” classic. So Singleton didn’t seem the ideal choice to refashion the legend of the “black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks”—as Isaac Hayes returns to sing—even if the director reportedly had his eye on the project ever since Boyz N the Hood. The no-nonsense spirit of the original, however, seems to have focused Singleton’s approach; the new Shaft is the director’s most efficient statement of his familiar themes.

Respectfully, Singleton decided not to supplant the original Shaft. Richard Roundtree returns in a cameo as John Shaft, whose nephew and namesake (Samuel L. Jackson) is a New York City police officer. The younger Shaft is a typically swashbuckling Hollywood cop, bending the law and twisting the regulations, but only for good. The case that hits close to home for the swaggering, supercompetent Shaft is that of a young African-American man brutally murdered outside a Manhattan nightclub after a round of racial taunts. The detective quickly identifies a suspect, wealthy young racist scenemaker Walter Wade (Christian Bale, fresh from being homicidally upscale in American Psycho), and a witness, Italian-American bartender Diane Palmieri (Toni Collette). But Walter posts bail and flees to Switzerland, while the obviously intimidated Diane disappears.

Two years later, Walter tries to sneak back into New York, but of course Shaft is tipped off. The cop puts the killer behind bars with Peoples Hernandez (Basquiat star Jeffrey Wright), a Dominican drug lord who is also nursing a grudge against Shaft. When Walter is (improbably) released on bail again, an enraged Shaft quits the force to concentrate on handling the murder his way. While Shaft searches for Diane, Walter recruits his new pal Peoples to silence the former bartender for good, and Peoples subcontracts the job to two corrupt cops from Shaft’s old precinct (Dan Hedaya, fresh from being a crooked cop in Hurricane, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson). When the guns start blazing, Shaft can rely only on comic-relief pal Rasaan (Busta Rhymes) and token good cop Carmen Vasquez (Vanessa Williams). (Uncle John doesn’t get personally involved in rough stuff anymore, apparently.)

With its hero dedicated to solving the racist murder of an utterly innocent young man, the new Shaft relies on Singleton’s customary schema of African-American superheroes and martyrs, which he’s employed in both historical (Rosewood) and contemporary (Higher Learning) settings. Yet despite toilet humor, ice-pick attacks, and the sex-and-guns montage of the opening credits, Shaft is Singleton’s least lurid film. That’s probably because his black-and-white scenario was rendered into shades-of-gray dialogue by Richard (Clockers) Price, who’s charted New York criminal subcultures as both novelist and screenwriter; Singleton shares the story credit with Shane (Armageddon) Salerno, but Price is the top-billed scripter. He’s prepared to depict New York as entirely tribal—a place where allying with members of another ethnic or racial group is as risky as opposing them—but at least he has an ear for how people actually talk.

Not that Shaft is naturalistic. The movie unapologetically mythologizes vigilantism, and its fast pace, ’70s-style wipes, and Armani-clad cop protagonist elevate style over substance. Compared with what Singleton has done with substance in the past, however, the director’s new interest in style seems almost profound.

With recent films like The Phantom Menace and Gladiator heavily dependent on computer effects and Looney Tunes logic, and cartoon features like Dinosaur and Titan A.E. mixing traditional cel animation with digitized real-life images, live-action and animated movies seem to be approaching convergence. The most significant thing most such films have in common, however, is not technological but expository: None of them can tell a story to save their bytes.

Titan A.E. is a departure from customary Hollywood animated-film thinking because it’s not meant for the 4-feet-and-under crowd. Directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, who previously did Anastasia, this PG-rated space adventure is pitched to the same audience that supports live-action cartoons like the tiresome M:I-2 and the empty but surprisingly clever Gone in 60 Seconds. Like those flicks, it’s a series of set pieces in which a cocky young male hero battles and ultimately defeats a one-dimensional villain: Things explode, supporting characters die, and hard rock (Lit, the Urge, Wailing Souls, Powerman 5000) alternates with Graeme (The Crow) Revell’s orchestral bombast.

The plot, such as it is, turns on hero Cale’s quest to find Titan, a new home for the former residents of Earth. The third planet from the Sun was destroyed in 3028 by the evil Drej, an electric-blue race that is “pure energy,” leaving the survivors as an intergalactic diaspora of plucky drifters and hustlers. Cale’s father created Titan to be a new home for the Earthlings and gave his preteen son the only map to its location. Fifteen years later, cosmos-trotting adventurer Korso enlists Cale to find Titan, in a quest that involves visiting several predominantly red planets and allying with a chilly but eminently warmable Earth babe, Akima.

The story and script are credited to five writers, but co-director Goldman estimates that as many as 15 scribes contributed to the project, and the result leaves many seams showing. The characterization is so perfunctory that Korso starts as a good guy, turns bad, and then becomes good again in time for the final showdown. The choice of actors who provide the voices is a better guide to the characters’ intended traits than their actions or dialogue: Because his lines are spoken by Matt Damon, Cale must be playfully roguish but fundamentally virtuous; Drew Barrymore’s voice signifies that Akima is sweet but tough. And the use of Nathan Lane and Janeane Garofalo indicates that their supporting characters were meant to provide comic relief, even if most of the gags apparently were jettisoned in a vain attempt to achieve narrative liftoff.

Titan A.E. echoes Star Wars in its depiction of A.E. (after Earth) food and lodging as a string of ramshackle roadhouses for interspecies swashbucklers and reprobates, and Cale is a distant relative of Han Solo. The movie owes more, however, to Japanese sci-fi anime, which is known for its Hiroshima-derived obsession with Armageddon, its culturally nonspecific names (like Cale and Akima, say), and its kiddie-cute but sexualized young-adult protagonists. (Both Cale and Akima are teasingly stripped, although the former’s medical exam and the latter’s shower end without any glimpses of animated private parts.) Japanese anime epics also tend to be hard to follow, but that’s because they’re often based on comic-book serials that have run for years, so they have a surfeit of plot. The muddled, inert Titan A.E. has no such excuse. CP