Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Shaft (2019)

Directed by Tim Story.

2019. Rated R, 111 minutes.
Samuel L. Jackson
Jessie T. Usher
Regina Hall
Alexandra Shipp
Regina Hall
Isaach De Bankolé
Matt Lauria
Luna Lauren Velez
Titus Welliver
Method Man
Aaron Dominguez

Back in the early 1970s, John Shaft became the first African American cinematic action hero. He was widely thought of as the Black answer to James Bond. It makes sense given how similar the two characters are once skin color is stripped away. They’re both ultra-cool with a taste for danger and a cavalier attitude towards women, all of whom throw themselves at the two. While the 007 of that era often dons a tuxedo, Shaft rocks a leather trench coat. Bond’s home base is in London but travels the world on his daring missions. Shaft is much more local, based in my hometown of Queens and traversing all the grimy New York City streets. As a person who was born in the city the year the original Shaft was made, it doesn’t get any grimier than New York in the 70s. Of course, the third film in the original Shaft trilogy moved the action to Africa, but the point remains.

With the release of this film, the series takes an odd turn in the way it all connects. There’s the original trilogy. Then, in 2000, it was rebooted with a film of the same name and starring the omni-present Samuel L. Jackson in the title role. At that point, it was already about a quarter century since the last movie. Homage was paid to the star of those older movies, Richard Roundtree, by including his character as the uncle of Jackson’s version. Fast forward another nineteen years to this film. For some strange reason, it’s also entitled Shaft. The main character is again named John Shaft, this time played by Jessie T. Usher. He is the son of Samuel L. Jackson’s Shaft. This is topped off by ret-conning what we were told in 2000, making Jackson’s character the son of Roundtree’s Shaft. Don’t worry, this is explicitly dealt with in the film. All this tomfoolery is forgivable, if we get a good movie out of it. We get an interesting one that fights against itself from the word go, largely because of the lineage I just explained, but a good one? Hmmm.

It all starts in the 1989 when we re-meet Jackson’s character, henceforth called Shaft, sitting in a car and getting an earful from his girlfriend Maya (Hall). Her griping must stop because some thugs make an attempt on his life. After the flying of lots of bullets, Shaft and Maya survive. She decides this was the last straw as we discover that the couple’s baby was in the backseat the entire time. We spring into a montage of the youngest John Shaft growing up and some of the events in his estranged father’s life via clips from the 2000 version of Shaft. We will call him Junior because that’s what he’s called most often. By the end of the montage Junior is an MIT grad working for the FBI as a computer analyst. When one of his friends turn up dead, the police rule it an overdose, but Junior suspects foul play. To get to the bottom of the matter, Junior turns to the only private detective he knows, the dad who hasn’t been in his life since that night way back in ’89. Father and son bonding in a buddy cop movie sort of way while chasing down bad guys ensues.

In true buddy cop fashion, Shaft is a steady stream of jokes only interrupted by gunfire and fisticuffs. Because of that, it’s never a boring movie. Things are constantly happening, and the movie never pauses to take a breath. Much of the dialogue, is actually dual monologuing by Jackson and Usher which works better than it sounds. The action scenes are never too far apart, creating a breakneck pace. Most of them are done pretty well, but none truly stand out with the possible exception of Junior’s first big moment as a bunch of would be assassins invade the restaurant where he’s dining. This scene is problematic for a reason we’ll get into a bit later, but the pure action it contains makes it the film’s best sequence. The finale is also fun but falters a bit as the near 80-year-old Roundtree requires a couple of noticeable camera tricks to help him hold up his end of the bargain.

A not-quite-perfect camera trick is probably nit-picking. The real issue is the movie struggles with whether it should say something, and how to say it. It gives us opposing point of views, as it should, but doesn’t work through them as much as it lets them try to shout each other down through the monologuing I mentioned. This creates constant pulling in several directions with no middle ground. Eventually, it resigns itself to a point of view that it admits doesn’t jive with today’s climate. It then tries to have things both ways by trying to simultaneously embrace and scoff at millennials. This could be made to work, but the film is oblivious to its own actions. It does everything under the guise of exploring what it means to be a real man, more specifically, a black man, in a landscape far different than the one in which the original Shaft was made. It does so by focusing on heterosexual males and how they relate to two other groups of people: gay men and straight women. How it depicts those relationships is where the movie gets itself in trouble.

When it comes to gay males, the movie draws a line in the sand between the older Shaft and the younger one. It does this to show the way the world has changed. For Shaft, gays are definitely less than men while Junior is accepting of them. The problem is really in the strength of the actors and the conviction with which they deliver their lines. Samuel L. Jackson plays to his well-known persona. He’s loud, overbearing, drops a lot of mf’s, and naturally discourages rebuttal. As Junior, Jessie T. Usher meekly offers up his viewpoints, and often visibly recoils from Jackson as he’s giving them. It makes him seem unsure of his beliefs and plays into the stereotype that modern men are soft. It also makes the movie feel like it’s on the older Shaft’s side. That side is one that clearly tries to combat its homophobia through intimidation and labeling gay people as undesirable others. The day it came out Twitter timeline was riddled with reviewers and frustrated viewers calling the entire film homophobic. They have a point. In my opinion, the framing of the characters poorly constructs the conflict between them and doubles down by using Shaft to deliver the laughs, and he often uses gays as punchlines.

The film’s struggles with its depiction of women runs parallel with its idea of male homosexuality. Except for Regina Hall’s Maya and Luna Lauren Velez's Bennie, women are not allowed agency. Maya's is very limited. The movie takes it from her and every other female every chance it gets. Every woman in the Shaft universe immediately falls in love with a man who makes a big display of his “manliness.” Usually, this involves taking charge of a dangerous situation and beating up and/or killing a bunch of people. The other way this happens in the film is just by a guy coming off as a stereotypical bad boy, and of course, having the rep of being the proud owner of a big dick. Maya has several moments where being in Shaft’s presence is enough to send her into a tizzy. Her only defense against winding up in his bed is not anything she actively does. The moment is ruined by Shaft saying something crass and she snaps back to reality. It plays into the idea that winning women over boils down to two things: their need to be protected, and their desire for the largest penis they can find. Bennie, on the other hand, has no such occurrences. She clearly thinks for herself and is immune to the charms of one of our heroes, so of course, she's one of the bad guys. Let’s get back to Junior’s big action scene that I singled out as the movie’s best. As mentioned, it begins with some henchmen coming into the restaurant where Junior is having dinner with Sasha (Shipp). They’re best friends, but we know that Junior has a thing for her. She doesn’t necessarily see him the same way, but obviously cares for him. We’ve also been told repeatedly that Junior hates guns. When it becomes clear these guys are here to kill him, Sasha pulls one out of her purse, ready to do damage. Junior, who has been completely timid around the things the entire movie, suddenly snatches it from her hands, transforms into Wesley Snipes and lays waste to the baddies. The next close up we get of Sasha has her looking like the princess in an old Disney flick, suddenly doe-eyed smitten with Junior. The action itself, when Junior is handling business is great. What leads up to it and what follows is pretty bad.

Read those two previous sentences again. They sum up the movie in a nutshell. When distilled to a collection of action scenes, it’s an entertaining ride. The humor is often cringe worthy, but even at that it doesn’t completely fail. It manages to make you laugh, even if you don’t think you should. Therefore, I don’t hate it, but understand why people will. It’s basically an 80s movie released a few decades late. If it did come out back then, and you were watching it now, you’d laugh and/or shake your head all movie long and say, “This would never get made today.” Well, it did. The 2019 version of Shaft is alternately fun, troublesome, and somehow, both far better and much worse than expected.


  1. So it's a film that tries to play in tune with the times of political correctness. No thanks. I'll just go watch the old films with Richard Roundtree who is a bad mother... SHUT YO' MOUTH!

    1. I might not have been clear. This movie is definitely NOT politically correct. In fact, it pretty much makes fun of political correctness.

    2. Oh, Ok. I'm sorry for misinterpreting the review. I'll give it a shot when it comes on TV.

  2. It sounds like not having watched any of the previous movies might actually be beneficial for a change! I'm looking forward to seeing this, it looks fun, and I don't mind some cringey humour every now and again.

    1. Seeing the previous movies is certainly not a requirement. Hope you enjoy it.

  3. I can't wait to go to my 10th Wiggles concert in 16 days