American audiences can finally own Shaft at home after the rest of the world was able to view it via Netflix for most of summer. Netflix feels like the most appropriate home, seeing as the service has become a repository for so many mediocre, forgotten programs or films that it sometimes feels like browsing through a collection of decayed cultural trends revived by ease and accessibility.
Here, Shaft feels like less a revival of Shaft from the 1970s and more like a long-lost depiction of the character as we might have seen him on a single-season Fox sitcom from the mid-2000s. Strangely enough, the actual 2000 Shaft movie was more in line with today’s reboot tastes than this version. Nick Rogers eviscerated Shaft in his review during its theatrical run this summer, calling out the movie’s lazy depiction of John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) as a horny old man making jokes that would get furious right-wing retweets. The script by Alex Barnow and Kenya Barris definitely feels aimed at an Archie Bunker audience uncomfortable with younger generations.
The movie has garnered additional ire on social media for Shaft Sr.’s casual use of gay panic jokes, ostensibly to show how out of touch he is but far too frequently deployed as punchlines rather than teachable moments. Pretty deserved, and it speaks to the issue with Shaft: There’s a much better version of this movie where it’s solely Jackson, the most charismatic cast member, being a grumpy old asshole without resorting to sounding like a homophobic old asshole when he can’t deal with his son, John Shaft, Jr. (Jessie T. Usher) eschewing old school ideas about masculine behavior.
In part, Shaft Sr.’s general nastiness is more notable because Jackson’s character is the only reason to watch this movie. But then, maybe the audience Shaft is aimed at is one comprised of men who fear their sons aren’t following in their footsteps. Whose discomfort with the growing shift toward indirect aggression as a display of masculine power rather than brute force confuses them. Who aren’t comfortable with men who treat women with equal respect. It’s not like this audience doesn’t exist, doesn’t see movies, doesn’t watch shitty sitcoms. Maybe despite the nature of the humor, it’s also reasonably valuable to have a movie that displays those men coming to terms with their sons and learning to love them despite not understanding their words.
Not that Shaft in particular is a great example of empathetic moviemaking (obviously); it mostly plays out like many intellectual-property reboots that aren’t quite sure the core of that IP is valuable any longer — e.g., the see-saw between jokes that poke fun at the classic Shaft and moments that deify him. It’s been mentioned that the original Shaft was never as socially blindfolded as his depiction here, but he was also never written by sitcom writers having difficulty crossing from their lane into a different genre, reliant on the crutches of their usual form to propel their storytelling. The result here is that the movie is mostly a mediocre exercise buoyed by a fun Jackson character who’s off-putting to the wider audience, with good reason. So, basically, a film perfect for the Netflix endless scroll, “Oh, they made that?” experience.
Special features includes a three-part documentary about the legacy of the Shaft character, a making-of documentary, deleted scenes and a gag reel.