FILM REVIEW – SHAFT. With Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie T. Usher, Richard Roundtree, Regina Hall, Alexandra Shipp. Written by Kenya Barris & Alex Barnow. Directed by Tim Story. Rated R for pervasive language, violence, sexual content, some drug material and brief nudity. 113 minutes.
How could they do this to John Shaft? One of the coolest characters in movie history — the cat who won’t cop-out when there’s danger all about — is now a reactionary old crank pissing and moaning about those damn millennials and their coconut water. Gordon Parks’ 1971 original may have been no great shakes as a detective story, but the movie electrified audiences thanks to Richard Rountree’s effortless elegance and the revolutionary jolt of a major studio action picture in which a sexy, funny African-American lead was calmly in command of every situation.
Reconceived as a bickering family sitcom by “Black-ish” writer Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow of “The Goldbergs,” director Tim Story’s excruciatingly unfunny SHAFT features Samuel L. Jackson reprising his role as John Shaft’s namesake nephew from the late John Singleton’s gratuitously unpleasant 2000 sort-of sequel to Parks’ film, also confusingly called “Shaft.” (Pretty sure this is the first time three movies in a franchise have all shared the same title, which strikes me as especially lazy considering how Ernest Tidyman’s 1970s series of Shaft novels had amazing names like, “Shaft’s Carnival of Killers,” “Shaft Has a Ball,” and most intriguingly, “Shaft Among the Jews.”)
Shaft’s a deadbeat dad this time, still working as a private investigator in Harlem when his estranged son J.J. (Jessie Usher) comes to him with a case regarding a boyhood friend who overdosed under mysterious circumstances. Polite young J.J. works as a data analyst for the FBI, shops at The Gap, and generally comes off like a gentle, decent kid. This is a source of no small horror to Jackson’s Shaft, a macho blowhard who barrels around in a muscle car shouting, swearing and constantly accusing his son of being a homosexual because he knows how to use computers, treats women with respect, and doesn’t love guns. “Your mama done fucked you up,” is an oft-repeated refrain in this movie where any sign of femininity is coded as weakness, the word “pussy” flung around ad infinitum as an all-purpose epithet.
Generational clashes can be the stuff of great comedy, but “Shaft” is like watching an episode of “All in the Family” in which Archie Bunker’s always right. The movie doesn’t just endorse the elder Shaft’s backwards worldview, it valorizes it – with J.J. heroically ditching his millennial manners and learning how to cuss, whup-ass, and push people around. This neutered little wimp is finally seen as a real man by his childhood crush (Alexandra Shipp) only after he shoots up a nightclub – a sequence viewed through her eyes in comedically erotic slow-motion to the tune of “Be My Baby” as bullet casings ejaculate from his borrowed pistol.
Samuel L. Jackson is one of my favorite working actors, but he’s always been all wrong for Shaft. As in Singleton’s picture, he’s strenuously flexing and preening in trenchcoats and turtlenecks with his eyes bugged out, angrily shouting everybody down. Part of what made Roundtree so cool was that he never seemed to exert himself, while Jackson is exhausting to watch. Plus, there’s nothing carnal about his presence. As I noted in my Philadelphia Weekly review of the 2000 movie, “he’s too busy being pissed off all the time to show much interest in sex, which seems an inappropriate choice for a character named after part of a penis.”
(As in Singleton’s film, Roundtree shows up for a too-brief cameo that puts the rest of the picture to shame. Mystifyingly, he’s now playing Jackson’s dad and we’re told that he was only pretending to be his uncle in the last movie for no apparent reason. Nevertheless, it’s a rare pleasure to be in Roundtree’s company again and I tacked an extra half-star onto this review just for his offhanded delivery of the line, “Oh hell no, I shot him.”)
But even if “Shaft” weren’t so retrograde and obnoxious it would still look like garbage. Director Tim Story previously helmed the “Ride Along” pictures, which I guess goes to show that you can keep making the same movie in which gun-toting tough guys drive around loudly calling their co-stars “pussies” over and over again without necessarily getting any better at it. The indifferently staged action sequences all suffer from the same flat television comedy lighting, and the glaringly obvious Atlanta locations won’t fool anyone no matter how many times these characters keep claiming they’re in New York. The movie doesn’t even have the decency to let Isaac Hayes’ immortal theme song play out in its entirety.
What’s depressing about “Shaft” is that a film so progressive half-a-century ago has been revived as an ass-backwards celebration of boorish, boomer intransigence. Every generation likes to think they’re so much tougher than the ones that follow, but only the laziest of comics congratulate their audiences for feeling likewise. A lot of the so-called jokes in this new “Shaft” – particularly some ugly, left-field jabs at trans folks – would feel at home on an episode of Tim Allen’s “Last Man Standing.” If this movie spent any more time bitching about millennials, I’d assume it was written by Bret Easton Ellis.•••
Over the past twenty years Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.