The Shafts

You know Shaft. The bad mother? The private dick? Lead character of the 1970s novel, the 1970s film, and the film’s subsequent sequels. The last name of three generations of characters in this latest effort — also called SHAFT — at reviving arguably the most well-known and important character of the blaxploitation era? Yeah, that’s right.

And if you know Shaft, you know that he is a portrait of radicalism. Of fighting the power. A figure of effortless cool.

Well, this film posits, “What if he wasn’t?”

Shaft: Second and Jr
Samuel L. Jackson gives Jessie T. Usher a piece of his mind in a scene from SHAFT. (Courtesy of New Line Cinema)

The Idea Behind SHAFT

John Shaft Jr. (Jessie T. Usher) — who is also a third, because sure — never really knew his father John Shaft the Second (Samuel L. Jackson). After he and his mom were nearly killed when a drug gang seemingly target the Second, mother Maya (Regina Hall) elected to take her boy and get out of the City. The Second opted to stay behind. So, for Junior, his dad has only ever been a series of flashy and age-inappropriate gifts ranging from a Super Bowl ring, apparently from Lawrence Taylor himself; a box of magnum condoms for a 10th birthday; and a pile of pornographic magazines for a “good luck at college” gift.

Now in the City himself as an FBI data analyst, the last thing Junior wants is to see his father. However, when Junior’s childhood best friend, Karim (Avan Jogia), seemingly dies of an overdose, he just might have to. Karim’s overdose seems hinky and the third member of this childhood trinity, Sasha (Alexandra Shipp) (now a doctor), confirms that there is no way he could have injected himself with that much heroin without losing consciousness long before he was done.

Devoid of other options, Junior has to visit dear old dad and hire him. With The Second on the case, he and the son he never knew quickly discover a conspiracy involving a veterans’ non-profit, a local market, and a mosque. At the top of conspiracy? Perhaps the man who first organized the hit that drove Maya and Junior from NYC, the gang leader Gordito (Isaach De Bankolé).

Shaft: Second and Sr
Samuel L. Jackson and Richard Roundtree want to show you their new gun purchases. (Courtesy of New Line Cinema)

Writing SHAFT

Kenya Barris — writer of GIRLS TRIP — and Alex Barnow — a well-traveled TV writer — wrote this script, both guns blazing. Alas, those firearms were set to cliché, not “insightful,” “intelligent,” “unique,” or, worst of all, “cool.”

From start to finish, wide swaths of the movie read like someone strung together a bunch of those Boomer memes dedicated to mocking millennials. There’s a joke about an FBI’s child, born female, who wants to be called Frank. The Second mocks his son at length for being “a pussy,” “a bitch,” and implies that, obviously, his son must be gay to act in the way he does. Coconut water gets mocked. Women wanting men to be MEN gets trotted out. And so on.

Every chance the script has to be retrograde it grabs with zest. Even when the movie acknowledges facts, say, about the danger of guns to the people that own them, they quickly rush to undercut reality. Yes, our lead character hates guns, but the two most prominent women in the movie sure do get turned on by watching men fire them. Yes, guns are very dangerous but look how cool and effective they are! And so on.

The movie is never more than a minute or two away from a gay panic joke, a joke implying that Junior is not black because of how he talks or where he lives, or a reminder that the old people have got this all right and it’s the young ‘uns that keep messing it up.

It is a bad script is what I am saying.

Shaft: Senior and Junior the Third
Richard Roundtree and Jessie T. Usher spend quality time together during a scene from SHAFT. (Courtesy of New Line Cinema)

Casting the Leads of SHAFT

Ever want to see a movie make Samuel L. Jackson feel out of touch and desperate to be cool? But like accidentally? SHAFT is the movie for you.

Or maybe you want to see the Jessie T. Usher, an affable charismatic performer, forced to represent all of “millennial” culture and then be heartily mocked for it? SHAFT is also the movie for you!

It has been a while since I have seen a film so fully and utterly work against the natural gifts of its stars but here we are. Enjoy?

Casting the Rest of the Callsheet

Alexandra Shipp has the unfortunate distinction of playing Storm in last week’s DARK PHOENIX and being Sasha, the love interest, here. I do not know how many actors have had the honor of being in the worst new release two weeks in a row, but Shipp has managed. It is especially sad because Shipp does good work here. She is hamstrung by the script, same as everyone, but she has good charisma and conveys a wide range of emotions with just her face. For all this movie faults, SHAFT definitely makes better use of her than PHOENIX does.

Regina Hall deserves so much better. That’s all I want to say about that.

Richard Roundtree as original recipe Shaft shows up for a short period of time to reveal that him being The Second’s uncle in 2000 was a lie and he is actually The Second’s dad. Hence, the weirdness of Junior as being a Third. He also shows us that it is still possible to be effortlessly cool as Shaft, making the choices the movie gives Jackson all the more baffling.

The villains are bland and underwhelming. This is only made worse by the film’s decision not to give the Big Bad any lines until the last 15 minutes and not to appear on-screen until the last 25. Hard to make the guy scary when we barely know who he is when the climatic gunfight starts.

Shaft: Sasha
Alexandra Shipp cannot look away from all the blam-blamming in SHAFT. (Courtesy of New Line Cinema)

Directing SHAFT

Tim Story directed the greatest FANTASTIC FOUR movie ever made. It’s true and we need to acknowledge that.

Like Story’s FF efforts, SHAFT proves competently directed. However, also like the FF films, it feels small. A bit more like a made-for-TV movie or a departed-but-still-popular TV show than a cinema experience.

Like I said, from a technical standpoint, Story delivers. He composes shots well. The camera moves well. The film has a good sense of scene geography until its chaotic climax. It is just, ultimately, a bit of a clichéd, underwhelming affair.

That’s a Wrap

There is a version of this movie where The Second thinks he knows it all but discovers through Junior that he does need to change with the times. In that version, his “observations” about the world and the young are jokes on the Second, examples of how out of touch he has become.

This movie, though? This movie loves him. It laughs with this unpleasant dinosaur who thinks that his son’s well-appointed apartment is reason enough to call him a “homo,” not grasping how dumb that is, how out of date that term is, or how not a terrible thing being gay is.

In most movies like this, the generations learn something about one another and realize they are both part wrong, part right. In this one, Junior ends up dressing like his dad, talking like his dad, and loving guns like his dad. And all of this is presented to us as a good thing. I’d say your backwards uncle will love it but he’ll probably object to all the cussing, those exposed breasts, and, oh yeah, the diversity.

One Comment

  1. Nicholas Ulanowski

    Nicholas Ulanowski

    June 13, 2019 at 3:29 pm

    Good read. Thanks for the insight!


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