Shaft tries to balance the series' legacy and 2019 values
Shaft is the fifth film in the long-running Shaft franchise, and the third simply titled Shaft. Richard Roundtree played the titular character with a velvety cool in the original 1971 film, its two direct sequels, and the short-lived television show. In 2000, Sam Jackson stepped into the role of John Shaft, canonically the nephew of the original hero, serving to bring the character into the modern era. And now, after 19 years of dormancy, the series is rearing its funky head one more time in yet another attempt to bring the film into the present day. While the entire series has moments of humor, this is the first entry that could be described primarily as a comedy, with the action beats playing second fiddle.
Our film begins with a flashback to 1989. Shaft (yet another digitally de-aged Samuel L. Jackson, this one slightly in the uncanny valley) is out with his wife Maya (Regina Hall) and their newborn son. After a comical argument between the couple, gunfire erupts, and Shaft is forced to do what he does best: kick ass, take names, and walk the streets with a blatant disregard for traffic. After all is settled, Maya tells Shaft that she simply cannot raise a son in this world of guns and violence and booties, and is taking him as far away from his problematic father as possible. It’s a pretty clean bit of retconning that doesn’t take away from Jackson’s 2000 iteration of the character.
In the present day we meet John ‘JJ’ Shaft Jr. (Jessie T. Usher). He’s a polite young man who works as a data analyst for the FBI. He’s soft spoken, introspective, and not at all aggressive when it comes to the ladies. Basically, he’s a good dude who doesn’t suit the Shaft name at all. When his best friend turns up dead under mysterious circumstances, JJ finds little help by way of legitimate law enforcement. As such, he decides to seek out his absentee father, knowing that Poppa Shaft has a way of getting things done without the assistance of “the man.”
This is the first movie I can think of in which Sam Jackson really shows his age. We joke and joke about how the man never ages, and for the most part it’s pretty true. But we forget that Jackson is in his 70s, and at least for the purposes of Shaft, it shows. What I mean is that John Shaft has spent the past few decades drinking, living off the grid, and taking loose women to bed with concerning regularity. The years have piled up on him and for the thematic concerns of the film, those years need to be visible.
Poppa Shaft has nothing but disdain for the modern world, and simply refuses to believe that his son - his seed - could be such a square. However, what Shaft sees as “square” could more accurately be described as “not being an asshole,” and it’s the exploration of their disparate identities that gives the film its thematic framework. This is a story about culture clash, about the changing definitions of masculinity, and the importance of judgment-free communication. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a smart movie by any means, but it gets a lot of mileage contending with the social mores of the preceding films’ flavor. JJ listens to women. JJ is uncomfortable around guns. JJ is very against his FBI cohorts working to infiltrate a local mosque based on an Islamophobic hunch. Needless to say, Shaft (neither Jackson nor Roundtree) has never carried such values.
As it turns out, Poppa Shaft and JJ have a lot to learn from one another.
Usher and Jackson have a fantastic chemistry, and both are very keyed-in to the thematic tug of war they represent as a duo. Jackson especially is having a blast here. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen him do straight comedy, and he’s positively blazing here. His crudity is almost refreshing, and the film gets a way with a lot of potentially problematic material by sheer virtue of the fact that Shaft’s behaviors are being represented as backwards and harmful. At the (presumable) end of a franchise, there’s something inherently interesting about taking such a bold swing and criticizing the culture in which the original Shaft films are branded. It doesn’t always come away clean (the aforementioned mosque subplot that seems to want to make a progressive statement, but doesn’t really do the image of Islam any favors), but the fact that the film is making an attempt at progressivism is laudable.
Regina Hall is, as always, the best part of every scene she’s in. As Shaft’s ex-wife (who raised JJ right in his father’s absence) she’s frequently the smartest person in the room, even if she still can’t resist the “charm” of her ex-husband. I’m sure people will find a few of her swoons to be cringey, but what can I say? It worked for me. Hall is just so damn funny that she can make anything work. And if I’m being honest, even at a time where we are trying to purge toxic masculinity from culture, it would be an unforgivable sin to soften Shaft entirely. It’s his “duty to please that booty” and if you can’t enjoy such things, well, you’re at the wrong movie.
Naturally the plot finds a way to incorporate all three generations of Shaft into the final action pieces, and it’s just a blast to see them all together, decked out in swanky red trench coats and brandishing comically large guns (that are never EVER in need of reloading). When it comes time to put the comedy aside and deliver a Shaft movie, Shaft succeeds.
I do wish that director Tim Story (Barbershop, Ride Along) were less inclined to create a shiny, broad product. If he had taken a page from Singleton’s notebook (whose Shaft found a pretty strong balance between grindhouse and modernity) he’d have managed to give this the edge it sorely lacks. From underdone fight choreography hidden behind purposefully cryptic editing, to an intermittent “busy work” score that punctuates what should have been a full soundscape of funk and multiple generations of urban needle drops, there are so many frustrating missed opportunities that are highlighted by just how R-rated and mischievous the bulk of the film manages to be. To put it in Shaft terms, this film is strongest when not copping to the man. At any rate, this oddball little film just too much fun to do anything but groove with it.
Shaft opens in Philly theaters today.