The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, December 10, 2000
Wide Angle

Shaft is back
By Ervell E. Menezes

WHEN German-born director Wolfgang Petersen of Twister fame decides to make a film like The Perfect Storm it is obvious that it will be action-packed and special effects (FX) heavy. Petersenís first film The Boat nearly two decades ago, was about a submarine so heís at home in the water and even below it. After that came The Never Ending Story another action film even if at times it looked like what the title said.

But the sad thing about The Perfect Storm is that it tends to mix two genres. The last 30 minutes which deal with the storm are simply brilliant. George Lucasí Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) company is known for its FX and computer graphics and they have come out with some of the most tempestuous storm sequences ever filmed. But the aspect of dealing with the hazards of a fishing community and which could be matter enough for a whole film is diluted with the entry of the storm and Petersen falls between two stools.

Samuel L. Jackson as ShaftThe film is set in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a major fishing port in the North Atlantic known for its catch of sword fish. Apart from being a means of livelihood, fishing is a near-religion and it is nothing for these hardened, fearless fishermen to wager their lives against their livelihood. This is precisely what Billy Tyne (George Clooney) and the crew of his Andrea Gail do in The Perfect Storm.

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To add to the drama Tyne, a veteran fisherman is having a run of disappointing catches in contrast to Linda Greenlaw (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) who is on a catching spree. The owner of both the ships Bob Brown (Michael Ironside), therefore doesnít miss a chance of deriding Tyne on his failures.

So what does Tyne do? Convinced that he can change his luck by going beyond the normal reach of most New England fishing boats, he sets on an voyage to the Flemish cap, a remote area known for its rich fishing prospects. He has heard of the ensuing storm but this is his big chance of beating Greenlaw. While Greelaw plays safe and withdraws, Billy Tyne thinks he can beat the storm back to Gloucester along with the enormous catch they have just made.

The stage is thus set for mother of all storms. The local TV weatherman tells his viewers that Hurricane Grace (whatís in a name?) is on a collision course with two other weather fronts and when the three meet it will be unlike any that has ever been recorded. The "Andrea Gail" crew is made up of a variety of scruffy fishermen, some loners, others forced by circumstance to brave the rough seas.

One of them is Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg) who has a divorce lawyer to pay off before he can start a new life with his girl-friend Chris (Diane Lane). But the story is woven around too may characters. With the number reduced the film could have been more compact. Could have chosen to make a film on the ambience of the fishing village and its occupational hazards and could have cut down on the storm sequences.

Based on a true story and a best-selling book by Sebastian Junger, it drags its feet along and the first three quarters are anything but absorbing. It is only the storm, which could be a film by itself, that sort of redeems the earlier part of the film. And yet Murph (John C. Reilly) and Sully (William Fitchner) are among the better cameos, though their initial fight seems contrived.

In a film where the killer storm is the main attraction and the heroes Clooney and Wahlberg of Three Kings fame find themselves together again and do a fair job adequately supported by Reilly and Fitchner. Diane Lane (remember her as the child actress in The Little Romance nearly two decades ago?) provides the emotional element convincingly while Mary Stuart Mastrantonioís part is essentially academic. If only director Petersen could have done more justice to the fishing community of Gloucester and their dates with destiny?

Shaft is back. The Black detective John Shaft of the early 1970s who kissed the girls and made them sigh, and even more. The one who employed unorthodox methods to solve crimes, the black manís answer to James Bond and other white studs. Why? Because today there is a much greater following for Black cinema with the advent of filmmakers like Spike Lee and John Singleton. I remember reviewing the novel by Ernest Tidyman in 1972 though the films came to India in the late-1970s because in the early 1970s the licences of American film companies were suspended for a few years.

Then it was Richard Roundtree who played Shaft. Today is Samuel L. Jackson who seems to be the coolest cat among black actors. Sporting a Yul Brynner hair cut and going about his task in a laid-back, unhurried manner, he fits the bill to a tee. It would be like Hollywood to pull in the original Shaft, Richard Roundtree as Uncle John. They have a way of regurgitating characters. Didnít they show the Ben-Hur chariot race in some recent film?

But otherwise thereís nothing special about Shaft the underbelly of New York has been done to death in the innumerable mafia films of the 1980s and 1990s. Here it is spoiled college kid Walter Wade (Christian Bale) who kills a black youth but skips bail and flees the country. But when he returns after two years, Shaft hauls him back into custody. All Shaft needs to nail wade in a key witness.

The film follows an unexpected course. Of course the tempo is staccato and the music (generally rap) goes with it. It has its moments and Dominican drug lord Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright) provides a good cameo but, at best, it is just another Hollywood potboiler. Itís revival in the United States should not make any significant impact on its release here in India.