The new "Shaft" is an upgrade that is also a downgrade. It's not a "blaxploitation" movie, whatever that would look like (at this point, the concept is meaningless). It is, rather, a rudely conventional, entertainingly junky badass-for-the-megaplex action comedy. Yet since the film has the audacity – or maybe it's just the shameless huckster savvy – to go out with the exact same title as the 1971 Gordon Parks classic, as well as the fun-in-a-violent-forgettable-way 2000 John Singleton remake, you may ask: What is this, exactly? A sequel that's also a reboot, though with the same cast?
Actually, it's the ultimate subordination of street-thriller attitude: the reduction of "Shaft" to that old thing, a trash-talking shoot-the-works buddy- cop movie ̵
bonding movie, since the characters in question happen to be John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson), down-and-out private dick (in every sense), and the son he abandoned 30 years ago, JJ Shaft (Jessie T. Usher) , who shares nothing with his dad but his name
JJ, raised by his mother (Regina Hall), is a respectable millennium with a degree from MIT, who toils away in the New York office of the FBI as a data analyst . Early on, a kid in his neighborhood surveys JJ, in his red plaid shirt and gray knit tie, and says, “Where you work? The Apple Store? Or a Panera? ”That more or less sums up the movie's bombs-away sitcom snark, and when JJ, moments later, confesses,“ I'm not a gun guy, ”that sums up its theme. "Shaft" is going to be a glorified cartoon riff on dueling notions of masculinity.
Not that it's a fair fight. JJ, a his role as desk-jockey hacker, is presented as a savvy but overly officious law enforcer who is so responsible that he is fundamentally emasculated. Yet Jessie T. Usher is a solid appealing actor, and he doesn't play JJ as a geek stereotype. He's more like a laugh-day Young MC – a dude who's got the gift of gab but is totally comfortable with his conventional middle-class soul. The movie's message, of course, is a little shaft in his life.
Enter Samuel L. Jackson whose Shaft is in his street ways that is now a fatal relic, a pleasure-loving Dirty Harry of Harlem who lives by his own rules. He guzzles cognac before noon, treats the women he dates like strippers, and is likely to be interrogate suspects with a smashed jaw as a leading question. Looking at his overly presentable son, he asks, "What is your business? Do you want to be a man?" For the rest of the movie, he proceeds to judge JJ for being too white and not enough of a man. All of which makes "Shaft," in its admittedly formulaic and even trivial way, a movie just timely enough to seem almost topical.
Pop culture often has a dimension of counterculture, and if JJ, with his painstaking sensitivity and politeness, incarnates enlightened male attitudes, Shaft is on hand to put those attitudes on trial. A real man, says Shaft, never apologizes; instead, he owns who he is. That's the sort of thing a movie can say to an audience without, in fact, having to apologize for it. But is Shaft's endorsement Shaft's hustler caveman point-of-view? Yes and no. It's saying that JJ needs more, and that Shaft, for all the raw glory of its inner-city appetite, needs to respect the rules. But the movie is mostly saying that JJ needs to become a gun guy, and when he does, it's "crowd-pleasing," though you may look at him and think, "Where the hell did that come from?" from JJ hanging out with his happy vigilante of a father, but it really comes from a comedy action ability to turn, however implausibly, on a dime.
"Shaft" was co-written by Kenya Barris (the co-writer or "Girls Trip," and a writer-producer on "black-ish" and the TV scribe Alex Barnow ("The Goldbergs," "Mr. Sunshine"), and it's got one of those plots that's an interlocking series of only -in-the-movies situational abstractions. JJ's buddy, Karim (Avan Jogia), a war veteran and recovering junkie, is found dead of a massive overdose. JJ spends the movie trying to find out what happened to him, which leads him to drug dens, a mosque that may be a terrorist front, and a support group for veterans that founded Karim.
It's mix-and-match Thriller MacGuffin cliches, but the movie barely pretends to be interested in this generic crime plot. It's more on milking the name of the support group (Brothers Watching Brothers) for running joke that flirts with homophobic paranoia, and with giving Jackson the ultimate reputation and way to explain things like how Shaft owns a personal computer. "I won it in a game show called Beat the Shit Out of a Piece of Shit Drug Dealer," says Shaft. “You get to keep that shit!” Samuel L. Jackson, with a goatee like like daggers, his voice kicking into high dudgeon, tosses off a line like that one though he's been doing it for 25 years, which of course he has. But he has never lost his fever, and it remains contagious. He swaggers with style.
"Shaft," the 1971 original, is the movie that kicked open the by the blaxploitation revolution. That, of course, was "Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song," the incendiary indie blockbuster released just two months before "Shaft." But "Shaft" was the movie that packaged blaxploitation into a brazily commercial studio-approved form. The credits sequence is justly legendary: the theme of the theme song, with its wah-wah guitar triggers and lordly bass groove and velvet stud narration, laid over those documentary shots of Richard Roundtree (looking, in his long brown leather coat, like Marvin Gaye meets Stagger Lee) wandering through Times Square, all of it adding up to a sequence as mesmerizing, in its way, as the opening or "Saturday Night Fever." But once the movie settles into its gumshoe-thriller groove, it becomes a glorified episode of "Kojak." "Shaft," as a movie, mostly lacks danger, which is one reason why both the 2000 "Shaft" and the new one don't feel like violations of it.
Yet the original movie had Richard Roundtree, who filled it with his presence, and the smartest thing the new "Shaft" does is take Roundtree – as John Shaft, Jackson's father – and turns into a character who's hotter, and cooler, than anyone around him. Bald, with a snowy-white beard, Roundtree may look every one of his 76 years, but his spirit is spry and tougher than leather. It may sound like this, but in "Shaft" he humanizes gun fetishism. He is violence in playful defiance, uniting the characters in a multi-generational trinity of pulp machismo: the father, the son, and the holy motherfather. The movie is product, but by the end you want to see this team again.