Sam Jackson returns with two more generations of Shafts in a slick actioner let down by milquetoast jabs at millennials.
When the original Shaft was released in 1971, its eponymous hero was a reaction to Hollywood’s previous depiction of black men. Racist media portrayed men of color as weak, subservient, unattractive, and in every way inferior to white heroes. John Shaft was different: in charge, intelligent, and virile, he was a masculine ideal for black men to look up to in the wake of the Civil Rights movement. It’s no surprise then, that Tim Story’s remake-cum-sequel to both Gordon Parks’ 1971 film and John Singleton’s 2000 remake is primarily concerned with masculinity. Whether that masculinity is something to strive for is up for debate.
2019’s Shaft focuses on the third generation of Shaft men, with its lead, John Shaft Jr. (Jessie T. Usher, Independence Day: Resurgence), the son of John Shaft II (Samuel L. Jackson, Captain Marvel), just called Shaft, and grandson of John Shaft Sr (Richard Roundtree, the OG Shaft). Shaft Jr. (also called JJ or Junior) is a departure from the other men in his family: raised by his mother, Maya (Regina Hall, Support the Girls), he is cerebral, sensitive, and a bit of a pushover. He resents his father’s absence in his life, unaware that his mother cut off contact from Shaft due to concerns over JJ’s safety, and doesn’t want to be part of his dad’s world.
JJ is thrust into the Harlem underbelly when his friend Karin (Avan Jogia, The New Romantic) is found dead of an overdose. While Karin is a recovering addict, JJ doesn’t believe that Karin was using, and his suspicions are confirmed when the autopsy report shows that the levels of heroin in his system are too large to be self-administered. Determined to find out how Karin died, but finding himself inept at detective work (despite being a data analyst for the FBI), JJ seeks out his father for assistance.
The real issue isn’t so much that Shaft promotes traditional masculinity, but that its repudiation of millennial masculinity is so one-note.
Despite the third installment of the Shaft franchise ostensibly being about JJ, the real draw of the film is his dad. Jackson is an endless supply of charm and charisma, and he takes command of every scene he’s in. More importantly, he has great chemistry with Usher, with the two men playing off each other with a mix of antagonism and affection. Their interactions turn a formerly gritty series into a buddy comedy that still manages some great action set pieces.
The rest of the cast has great chemistry as well, with the other stand out performance coming from Hall’s Maya, who oscillates between loathing and loving Shaft. The stress she receives from Shaft’s chaotic lifestyle leads to some hilarious moments. Roundtree’s reprise of Shaft Sr. is also great, proving that you can still be cool at 76.
While the cast’s chemistry does lead to some great comedic moments, and the film has plenty of witty lines, a lot of the jokes won’t land for certain audiences. Despite being released in 2019, Shaft is full of boomer humor, and if that’s not your thing, it’ll start getting old really quick. Once JJ reunites with his father, the humor turns into a singular sustained gay joke until the midpoint of the movie: JJ’s skinny jeans make him look gay; having a water cooler with lemons in it looks gay; Karin’s veteran charity, Warriors Watching Warriors, sounds gay; a gay receptionist finds Shaft attractive… and that’s it, that’s the joke. Nevermind the fact that JJ acts like just about any straight professional you’ll meet: if you don’t act like John Shaft II, you might as well be Buddy Cole. These jokes would have been juvenile coming from a middle schooler, but it’s sad to see an adult continually making them, especially coming from a guy who’s supposed to be totally secure in his masculinity.
These jokes wouldn’t be so much of an issue if they were explored in any depth, but neither Story nor writer Kenya Barris (black-ish) seems interested in really exploring the tension between Millennials and previous generations. The movie takes it as a given that “the old school” is always right unless something can be gained from technology. While there is a little pushback from Maya and JJ on Shaft’s more roguish behaviors, he’s mostly shown as a masculine ideal.
Not only does JJ become a more effective detective when he starts emulating his father’s style, but he is also able to move out of the friend zone once he acts like his dad. His crush, Sasha (Alexandra Shipp, Dark Phoenix), doesn’t see him as a potential romantic partner until she sees him shoot a guy. While it’s inevitable that a Shaft movie would celebrate the rough-and-tumble sort of dude, 1971 (and even 2000) was a long time ago. Times have changed, and the 2019 version of Shaft could have shown that you can be smart and sensitive while still being a badass, but it would rather make the same sort of snowflake jokes you’d see on your uncle’s Facebook feed.
While the comedy may not be a hit for everyone, Shaft unequivocally delivers on the action front. Story knows how to shoot exciting set pieces, whether they be shootouts or car chases, and his flair for the dramatic and ability to balance comedy with thrills keeps Shaft fun. While all the action scenes are entertaining, its the film’s climax that showcases the film’s most exciting sequences — with all three generations of John Shafts confronting the villain, mixing gunplay with hand to hand combat. Even more impressive, they also get hurt. No matter your thoughts on the rest of the film, the last act actually manages to be quite thrilling.
Perhaps it’s hypocritical to decry Shaft’s more conservative leanings while also praising its violent set pieces. After all, the action genre is probably the most conservative, rarely questioning our society’s definition of what it means to be a “real man,” and that’s not completely a bad thing. John Shaft is a power fantasy, after all, and fantasies don’t need to be PC. The real issue isn’t so much that Shaft promotes traditional masculinity, but that its repudiation of millennial masculinity is so one-note. I’m fine with watching macho men on screen, even if their values don’t match mine. I just want them to have more than one joke.
Shaft grooves its way into theaters Friday, June 14th.