Who’s the wack transphobic dick that acts porcine with all the chicks? 2019 Shaft? You’re damn right. Who is the man who would piss on the work of John Singleton? Tim Story. Can ya bigot?
Gordon Parks’ iconic 1971 original Shaft and the late Singleton’s 2000 sorely underrated reboot of the same name roiled with animosity and breezily rolled with inherent blaxploitative outlandishness. Singleton’s film especially addresses notions of power, class, equality and the continual chest-sucking wound of racial divides; one of its villains is a proxy for Donald Trump, Jr.
Director Tim Story’s new Shaft reads like a performative, provocative and pejorative tweet that the real Don Jr. would like and share, furthered on by dudes with default avatars or 12-follower jabronis. The screenplay comes from Alex Barnow & Kenya Barris; yes, Barris is the creator of Black-ish, a TV series of always-engaged, sometimes-enraged social commentary that runs at counterpoint to the grotesque displays here. Just as those Twitter tools might argue, this trio of filmmakers will almost certainly insist they’re only joking — purportedly tweaking the mythology of manly loners when they’re really embracing monstrous, modern-day misogyny and misanthropy.
Sure, the 2000 film opened on a quiet-storm montage of breasts and butts. Nothing wrong with Shaft having sex early, often and with a lot of people. But there’s a big gap between him playing the field as a lothario and laughing about he always “gets y’all mixed up.” He cracks the same homophobic joke about the titular connotations of a military-veteran group named Brothers Watching Brothers about 50 times. And, uh, millennials, amirite? It’s like fifth-rate Bill Maher material.
There’s a plethora of that in place of a tissue-thin story, which introduces John Shaft, Jr. (Jessie T. Usher), an MIT-educated data analyst for the FBI. After his friend Karim unexpectedly overdoses, Junior turns to his estranged father, private detective John Sr. (Samuel L. Jackson), for some less official street intel. Senior protests that Junior can’t afford his rate, but Junior insists that the debt of Senior’s absence has come due.
Together, they uncover a conspiracy involving military veterans, a mosque, a grocery and Gordito, a drug kingpin Senior has chased for 25 years. There is an ostensible explanation for how everything connects, but it doesn’t matter. So many villains, none as eminently punchable as Christian Bale or thoroughly terrifying as Jeffrey Wright from Singleton’s film. Oh, and in between all of this, Senior calls Junior a homo because he has, you know, bothered to decorate his apartment. Lovely. Nothing wrong with the idea of Shaft Sr. culture-clashing with a woke son, but the execution is depressing.
This is largely because Jackson is reprising his character from Singleton’s 2000 film in name only. That Shaft’s melancholy weariness and sense of righteousness has been obliterated. This is like Samuel L. Jackson playing Kenan Thompson’s imitation of Samuel L. Jackson doing Shaft in a painfully long Saturday Night Live skit — detachment to the point of anonymity. Senior’s vigilance has pivoted to ignorance, and there are no claws out when he scratches the itch of vengeance. Instead, Senior spends most of his time referring to Maya (Regina Hall), Junior’s mother and the alleged love of Senior’s life, as pussy. (For good measure, Senior throws in a question about relationships: “Who cares about what women think or feel?”)
When Richard Roundtree, the OG Shaft, shows up near the end, the 2019 Shaft sets aside all these superfluous, numbing slaps to the face for a few minutes to put all three generations into an action sequence of modest quality. (Yes, this retcons the uncle bit from 2000.) And there is one fatherly confession that achieves weight solely through Jackson’s gale-force authority. No version of this particular Shaft could’ve shaken the cut-above-broadcast-TV aesthetic or cookie-cutter action that Story has generally trotted out across his career. But there are brief glimpses of what could’ve been without all the repugnance — call it Grumpy Old Motherfuckers.
The attempt at castle-storming comedy isn’t Shaft’s problem. The issue is how it just stops once it reaches the moat, smiles wide, cannonballs inside, and then slathers the murky sludge all over itself.