Review: I’m Talking About ‘Shaft.’ Yes, Again.
There’s a new “Shaft,” and why not? Just to be clear, the latest movie with that title, directed by Tim Story, stars both of the old Shafts: Richard Roundtree, who created the role in the 1971 original and its several sequels, and Samuel L. Jackson, who revived the franchise almost 30 years later. They play father and son, and a third generation is represented by Jessie T. Usher — a dynasty of complicated men. One smooth, one crude, one woke.
With plenty of work to do. It isn’t as if the complexities of race, masculinity, violence and capitalism that the first “Shaft” spun into blaxploitation gold have gone away. But this iteration, in spite of a smattering of topical references, is steadfastly not political. Its main comic idea — the sometimes funny script is by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow — is that Shaft (the one played by Jackson) is not politically correct. He’s another one of those grumpy older guys with lots to complain about, in particular the younger generation.
What’s up with those millennials, am I right? Shaft’s son (another John Shaft, usually called JJ) is a member of that generation, about whom Dad and the writers have some unusual ideas. Apparently millennials are people who congregate in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood and also on Facebook, shop at the Gap and can be described as metrosexual. The truth hurts, doesn’t it? Put that in your vape and smoke it, snowflake.
JJ does all those things — minus the vaping — and also sends and receives a lot of texts. He also does capoeira and hates guns. Kids these days! Raised by his mother, Maya (Regina Hall), far away from Dad, he has graduated from M.I.T. and taken a job as a data analyst for the F.B.I. He’s secretly in love with his childhood best friend, Sasha (Alexandra Shipp), and turns to Shaft for help when their other childhood best friend, Karim (Avan Jogia), dies of a suspicious drug overdose. Karim, a Muslim military veteran and a recovering addict, is the film’s answer to the question, “Alexa, how can we make this movie seem relevant to contemporary issues?”
There’s no point in complaining about the weary mess of the plot. It’s the usual tangle of drug dealing and double-crossing, designed to move us along from one shootout to the next. Story coherence has never been the point with Shaft. He’s all about presence and presentation, and the grace and guile required to deal with the bad guys, the Man and of course all those women.
The sexual politics of the moment might be tricky for John Shaft, and Jackson and the filmmakers try to keep him on a tight leash while making it seem as if he’s up to his old tricks. It’s a matter of bark and bite. Shaft says outrageous things, but he’s fundamentally harmless, and also axiomatically irresistible — “a sex machine to all the chicks,” as the ancient version of the title song has it.
But whether you take this iteration of the character as an affectionate throwback or a cringe-worthy anachronism, it’s hard to watch “Shaft” without feeling a little wistful. You occasionally sense the presence of an interesting movie struggling to get out of this hyperactive action comedy — or even just a better Tim Story action comedy, something like “Ride Along” or “Ride Along 2.” The generational tensions and the chip-off-the-old-block conceit had some real potential, signaled in the last shot of Jackson, Roundtree and Usher posed as if for the sequel poster. It shouldn’t have been so complicated.
Rated R. I’m talking about Shaft! Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes.
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A.O. Scott is the co-chief film critic. He joined The Times in 2000 and has written for the Book Review and The New York Times Magazine. He is also the author of “Better Living Through Criticism.” @aoscott
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