By Liam Lacey
Once again, it's time to answer the musical question posed by Isaac Hayes in his 1971 Grammy and Academy Award–winning Question: "Who's the black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks?"
Cue the spine-tingling wacka-chicka guitar track. Answer: Shaft! You're damn right. The hyper-masculine blaxploitation detective hero John Shaft — who fought and fornicated his way through three features and a short-lived TV series in the seventies — is back. Or rather, back again.
The character was reborn in John Singleton's more political 2000 reboot, with Samuel L. Jackson as the nephew of the original John Shaft. Later, Quentin Tarantino — shamelessly coat-tailing on a legend — claimed that Django Unchained was about Shaft's ancestor, linking the blaxploitation hero to Wagner's Siegfried.
The new iteration is directed by Tim Story (Barbershop, Ride Along), in a script written by television writers Alex Barnow (The Goldbergs, Family Guy) and Kenya Barris (Blackish) and, given its sitcom-ish reworking, it would be more appropriate to say Shaft is back-ish. Jackson still wears his leather coat and turtlenecks but this time he's more cute than cool, an unreformed rascal, belatedly learning about the importance of family values.
Strictly speaking, Jackson is only one of three Shafts in the film, marking the generational decline of the essential Shaftness. The story sees Shaft reunited with his millennial son, JJ (Jessie T. Usher). Somewhat late in the film, the original dignified and stoical John Shaft, Richard Roundtree, shows up as Shaft, first edition.
The script focuses on the bickering odd-couple relationship between Jackson's Shaft and JJ, an FBI data analyst, who was raised by his mother (Regina Hall) in upstate New York. JJ has gone overboard in rejecting his father's legacy, turning into a full-blown nerd-o-sexual: a knapsack carrying, Gap-shirt-wearing, gender-sensitive hipster with a Lord of the Rings poster on the bare-brick wall of his loft.
Usher (Independence Day: Resurgence), though stuck in the straight-man role, has an appealing lightness. He does passive-aggressive well, offering his pinched, disapproving smile to Jackson's brutal methods and extra-spicy trash talk. We see JJ physically flinch when his father says verboten words, especially the gusto with which he says "pussay."
Some of this is pretty funny but at times, needlessly stupid, especially about transgender kids and witless women as sexual receptacles.
There's a tangled thriller plot too, but mostly it gets in the way. Karim (Avan Jogia), a war vet and one of JJ's childhood friends, is found dead under suspicious circumstances. At the urging of their mutual (gorgeous) doctor friend Sasha (Alexandra Shipp) — with whom JJ is stuck in the friend zone — JJ decides to investigate in a rough corner of Harlem. He soon learns that gang enforcers aren't always receptive to meaningful dialogue so he decides to seek Shaft Sr. for more forceful help.
Soon, the pair are learning generational lessons from each other while facing a gauntlet of villainous types (phony charity, sadistic immigrants, fake-pious Muslims). The confrontations involve a lot of prolonged, quasi-slapstick bullet-spraying firefights, which are hard on windows… and on viewers’ patience.
I suspect that JJ is the kind of guy who would find this movie "deeply problematic" before his father helps him awaken his inner male dinosaur. And he'd be right, mostly, because Shaft shafts its own hard-action legacy with uninspired action sequences and a sentimental wrap-up. As with many of these slapped-together action-comedy hybrids, it's a game effort by a talented cast but a shame about the movie.
Shaft. Directed by Tim Story. Screenplay by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow. Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie T. Usher, Regina Hall, Alexandra Shipp and Richard Roundtree. Opens wide June 14.