Who's the black action star without much to do, really? Shaft!

Shaft (15) <i>Gordon Parks, 100 mins</i> | The Emperor and the Assassin (12) <i>Chen Kaige, 160 mins</i> | Stuart Little (PG) <i>Rob Minkoff, 84 mins</i> | Kadosh (15) <i>Amos Gitai, 110 mins</i> | Fortress 2 (18) <i>Geoff Murphy, 99 mins</i>
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The Independent Culture

As far as I can tell, the reputation of Gordon Parks's Shaft, originally released in 1971, rests largely on its hero's bristling moustache. Hair in the Seventies having a political dimension it lacks today, Shaft's handlebar signalled an aggressive, sexualised masculinity - a point heavily underlined by Isaac Hayes's Oscar-winning soundtrack: "He's a black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks ... he's a complicated man and no-one understands him but his woman."

As far as I can tell, the reputation of Gordon Parks's Shaft, originally released in 1971, rests largely on its hero's bristling moustache. Hair in the Seventies having a political dimension it lacks today, Shaft's handlebar signalled an aggressive, sexualised masculinity - a point heavily underlined by Isaac Hayes's Oscar-winning soundtrack: "He's a black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks ... he's a complicated man and no-one understands him but his woman."

According to the considerable myth that has developed around the movie since then, Shaft is the original black action hero; the first black character that neither rolled his eyes and smacked his lips like Stepin Fetchit nor felt obliged to deliver his lines with the weighty, sonorous dignity of a Sidney Poitier. The only problem is that Shaft isn't much of an action movie. It's a laboured yarn that lead foots its way from one talky, static scene to another, only gathering pace when Hayes's score comes to the rescue.

It is, in fact, quite literally pedestrian, in that Richard Roundtree's private dick spends most of his time pounding the streets, hitting bars and pumping contacts like snivelling stool-pigeon Antonio Fargas (later to reprise the role as Huggy Bear in Starsky and Hutch). Compared to other black films of the era, like the existential indie Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song or slick, crowd-pleasing blaxploitation fare such as Superfly and Slaughter, it is uncomfortably conventional.

Yet, my feeling is that Parks may have been reaching for a more subtle evocation of black urban life than the action genre allows. You can see this best in the ways that Roundtree - a charismatic actor who played his first big screen role so well that audiences never accepted him in any other part - imbues his character with a life, and a lightness, missing from the script. Shaft treads a delicate path between cops, hoods, Black Panthers and snitches, all of whom loathe each other but are united in their respect for him. Roundtree plays the detective with the ghost of a smile, Parks's camera lingering on his face, as if to say negotiating a path between such antagonistic factions was no trickier for Shaft than a Sunday stroll.

There is an obligatory sex scene with a girlfriend on a fur-lined sofa, but for the most part, Shaft lives and works alone. He has a grim, impersonal office and a leather jacket that he hugs around him against the cold of the streets. But Roundtree's Shaft is never diminished by his surroundings. And even with nothing behind him but the coat on his back he walks tall, striding through the hostile city for all the world as if he owned it.

Chen Kaige's The Emperor and the Assassin, is set in third-century China and traces the fortunes of an ambitious King, Ying Zhen (Li Xuejian) in his bid to unite all of China beneath his rule. The film shows no small ambition on the part of Chen either, whose debut Yellow Earth announced the arrival of the new Chinese cinema in the Eighties. Farewell My Concubine some years later was a duly-lauded Palme d'Or winner, but this film is his epic. Casting thousands of extras for the movie's battle scenes, he has also rebuilt, to scale, ancient castles, temples, even whole cities.

The Emperor and the Assassin is a beautiful, towering movie, the most expensive ever to come out of Asia. But at its heart it deals with love, honour and betrayal. Lady Zhao (Gong Li) is the king's lover, who devises a fake assassination plot against him, in order to legitimate attack on a neighbouring kingdom. She searches out a brooding, conscience-scarred assassin (Zhang Fengyi) who, it emerges, has renounced his former ways. In her absence, the King commits increasingly grotesque atrocities, including the slaughter of a conquered city's children. In repulsion, she now plans his death with deadly earnest. But slowly, the Lady and the assassin fall in love, as she recognises in him a purity of spirit that contrasts sharply with the King's corrupted soul. Like Kurosawa's Ran, this is a film whose vastness of scale is matched by its emotional weight. Chen paints a canvas of desire and hubris, with the same sureness of touch that he sends thousands of soldiers to their death on the battlefield.

By contrast, Stuart Little aspires to few emotions apart from sentimentality. I'm not ashamed to admit that the child within me had high hopes for this film. The story of a plucky little mouse, Stuart, (voiced by Michael J Fox), adopted by the Little family (parents Geena Davis and Hugh Laurie and son Jonathan Lipnicki), is shot by director Rob Minkoff like a modern fairy tale, with the gleaming towers of an idealised New York standing in for the presence of an enchanted castle.

But every fairy tale needs its wicked witch and in this film there is only sugar and spice and all things nice. Stuart, who's been languishing in a human orphanage most of his life, is preternaturally wise. He dispenses good sense and wholesome advice with unsolicited profligacy. He's also disturbingly avuncular in his dress sense, affecting a penchant for tweed suits and bow ties. The Littles think they've got another son, but they've just adopted the rodent Henry Kissinger.

Like Stuart Little, Kadosh is about the ties that bind family. But this a far cry from fantasy New York. Set in the ultra-orthodox community of Jerusalem's Jewish quarter, it centres on two sisters, Rivka (Yaël Abecassis) and Malka (Meïtal Barda), both of whom are struggling against the constraints of duty and tradition. Amos Gitaï's movie is a bleak, sorrowful study of a world where each morning men thank God they were not born women. With considerable skill though, he's also crafted a subtle and moving exploration of how love can find a channel through even the most barren of terrains.

In Fortress II, Christopher Lambert is in high dungeon. Locked in a prison orbiting the Earth, he presumably has plenty of time to contemplate the pitiable state of his career following Greystoke - The Legend of Tarzan Lord of the Apes and Subway. Namely four Highlander films, the first Fortress movie and Michael Cimino's The Sicilian. Devoted fans can rest easy. Fortress II is a worthy addition to his oeuvre.

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