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In 'Shaft,' The Sex Machine Grinds Its Gears

Jun 13, 2019

To clear up any potential confusion, let's specify right here that the new action comedy Shaft is a sequel to, not a remake of, John Singleton's 2000 film Shaft. Which was a sequel to, not a remake of, Gordon Parks' 1971 "blaxploitation" landmark Shaft, adapted from Ernest Tidyman's novel but made immortal by Isaac Hayes' Oscar-winning title song.

Strangely, the churning of the decades has made the 19-year-old film a queasier revisit than the 48-year-old one: In Shaft Y2K, Samuel L. Jackson (as John Shaft, Nephew of the Black Private Dick Who's a Sex Machine to All the Chicks) is an NYPD detective who cheerfully announces "It's Giuliani Time!" before proceeding to crack skulls. With its untroubled embrace of violent policing and then outright vigilantism, Shaft 2000 had a stronger familial resemblance to 1971's Dirty Harry than it did to 1971's Shaft. (Both films had their cop heroes literally chuck their badges in frustration with The System's failure to punish the guilty.) But it was a well-made, briskly paced studio action picture livened by a pair of memorably odd villains played by Christian Bale and Jeffrey Wright.

The new Shaft, from director Tim Story — he of 2005's Fantastic Four (and its sequel) and Think Like a Man (and its sequel) — doesn't have the '71 picture's sociopolitical weight or the '00 one's professional zip. What it does have is an inexhaustible supply of gay-panic jokes of the sort that cost Kevin Hart (with whom Story made Ride Along, and yes, its sequel) his Oscars-hosting gig. Specifically, Shaft Sr. (Jackson again) is mortified that his estranged FBI computer whiz son (Jessie T. Usher, star of Independence Day: Resurgence) might not be living up to the family name in the Sex Machine to All the Chicks department.

Junior, as we learn during an opening-titles montage fast-forwarding through his youth, was raised by his mother (Regina Hall, so great in Support the Girls last year). She loved Shaft Sr., but after their entire family was almost killed in a 1989 attempt on the detective's life, when Jr. was just a tyke, she made the painful decision to break up with him to keep herself and her child safe. (Hall is 48 and Jackson is 70, but don't think about that too hard.)

Anyway, when an Army vet buddy of Junior's dies under suspicious circumstances, the younger Shaft reluctantly enlists his old man's help in solving the case. Their generational sparring is briefly amusing — Junior is a nattily-dressed, coconut water-sipping millennial who keeps a "lemon tower" in his apartment, while his pop brings strippers home with him from the club on weeknights and solves problems with his fists and his various guns. "Do I look like I'm on Facebook, mother[expletive]?" Jackson asks, evincing the movie's sitcom-tempo approach to comedy. (The screenplay is by Kenya Barrish and Alex Barnow, writers on Blackish and The Goldbergs, respectively.)

Even when he's coasting, Jackson can spin a funny line-reading out of any piece of copy you put in front of him. Usher, surprisingly, manages to hold his own in their scenes together. The movie is at its mediocre best when the kid is successfully rebutting his pop's constant attacks on his manhood.

But eventually — and depressingly — the scales tip in favor of what I have tried very hard up until now not to call toxic masculinity. The movie's single most repugnant scene arrives when Alexandra Shipp, as Junior's longtime crush, appears to reciprocate his sexual interest in her only after he takes away the pistol she carries in her purse and uses it to blow away two gunmen who attack the couple in a restaurant. None of the film's many gunfights are staged with much skill, but only this one uses loving slow motion to sell the message that Junior has at last becoming a real man through his use of deadly force to protect his woman.

Gross.

Our shifting notions of masculinity is a subject that's been explored to richer comic effect in other movies spun off from aging pop-culture properties that were far less significant in their time than Gordon Parks' 1971 Shaft. The R-rated 2012 movie version of 21 Jump Street is an example of a film that approached these issues with more wit and insight than this one does.

As in the 2000 Shaft, Richard Roundtree — Shaft Prime — shows up for an extended cameo. But this movie isn't smart enough to find any comic inspiration in the generation gap between Shaft Prime and Shaft Sr. It just makes them both Cranky Old Heavily-Armed Guys. Maybe the writers knew the fix was in anyway: A throwaway line of dialogue reveals that Roundtree's character is in fact Jackson-Shaft's father, not his uncle as stated in the prior film. Never mind that Roundtree is Jackson's senior by all of six years.

Well, if anyone could pull that off, it's Shaft.

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