- Directed by Tim Story
- Written by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow
- Classification R
- 111 minutes
There is no single moment in the new Shaft that approaches the effortlessly cool sequence in 1972’s Shaft’s Big Score! in which the titular black private dick is beaten and bloodied in slo-mo in the back of a mobster’s nightclub, where (literally) painted ladies groove and worm with genuine eroticism to the throb of the film’s funky, thrilling score. It is “cool” in the most meaningful sense of the word: tricky to describe, nigh impossible to apprehend. But you know it, or rather feel it, when you see it.
The new Shaft’s attempts at cool are demonstrably more desperate. In what must have seemed on paper like a show-stopping scene, FBI data analyst John (JJ) Shaft Jr. (Jessie Usher) guns down a gaggle of thugs in a slick, modernist New York resto in speed-ramped slow-motion, while his would-be love interest (Alexandra Shipp) looks on, wide-eyed and wholly enamoured. It’s a mishmash of clichéd action-movie tropes – the button-downed dork proving himself a competent marksman, the Matrix-style “bullet time” effect, the deployment of Be My Baby by the Ronettes (a song already used with consummate iconic heft in the opening of Scorsese’s Mean Streets) on the soundtrack – shaded with a requisite, knowing irony that is only ruptured when the formerly gun-shy JJ, after capping the bad guys, drops the firearm and declares, in disgust, “I hate guns!”
Even more than its lack of cool, it’s this sort of mixed messaging – an aspiringly “fun” gun-based action sequence punctuated by an anxious dismissal of guns themselves – that defines Shaft, and the modern blockbuster writ large. In its neediness to be liked, the new Shaft – the third of five films in the series to be titled, simply, Shaft – says everything and nothing.
It’s is loaded with jokes at the expense of skinny-jeaned, smartphone absorbed millennials, largely courtesy of JJ’s estranged P.I. father, also named John Shaft, who is played with vital comedic verve by Samuel L. Jackson, reprising his role from director John Singleton’s 2000 franchise reboot/sequel. Yet there are also jokes about the fact that anyone would make such lame jokes. There’s a plot line involving an Islamist terrorist group and the FBI’s anxiety about being perceived as Islamophobic, which is equally muddled – as if the filmmakers believe they can still indulge mean-spirited clichés about Muslim people (a scowling imam, a cowering daughter) as long as they’re not actually the villains.
In one sequence, JJ admonishes his father for wanting to hit a woman, and Jackson’s Shaft, in turn, pulls his punches. But fear not: Any viewer left thirsting for such a beat-down will be satisfied when Shipp’s character is brutally walloped by a bad guy later in the film. There’s a cake-and-eat-it-too quality to Shaft that is utterly stupefying. It’s not even a matter of the film being incoherent or entertaining competing ideas (about gun violence, generational divides, Islamophobia, toxic masculinity) simultaneously. It’s that it possesses absolutely no perspective whatsoever.
As handled by director Tim Story (of the Ride Along films), this Shaft plays as more of a straight comedy than an action film (as in Singleton’s version) or gritty urban thriller (as in Gordon Parks’s game-changing 1971 original). It’s loaded with jokes that, to the film’s credit, are vulgar and utterly unreprintable in a newspaper. But the shift in tone signals something a bit despairing. Shaft, once a meaningful icon of black American masculinity, has been turned into a joke, drained of both the excitement and cultural resonance he once possessed. The arrival of the O.G. Shaft (Richard Roundtree) in the new film’s last act may provide a modest buzz. But it’s similar to the thrill one might feel at hearing news that an old friend is still kicking around and cashing cheques, hale and hearty. And not even Roundtree’s appearance, nor winning performances by Jackson and Regina Hall and Isaach de Bankolé (as the underutilized main villain), can lift Shaft out of a messy muddle of jumbled writing, hacky direction and total thematic emptiness.
The film pays lip service to the ideas of the original by eventually having JJ flip-off his FBI bosses and refuse to work for “The Man.” But it’s (another) empty gesture. Although the original Shaft was bankrolled by Hollywood money, it proffered on-screen an alternative to the established banalities of mainstream cinema – banalities to which the new Shaft is utterly beholden. So while JJ Shaft may be well-meaning in sticking it to The Man, Shaft itself feels every inch like one of His products.
“When will I hear from you?” Harlem mobster Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) asks in the 1971 original. With that characteristic clipped, effortless cool, Roundtree’s John Shaft snaps back, “When I got somethin’ to say.”
Those holding the keys to Shaft franchise should have taken note.
Shaft (the new one) opens June 14