Movie Review: ‘SHAFT’ should shut its mouth

Alexandra Shipp, Jessie T. Usher, Samuel L. Jackson and Richard Roundtree in SHAFT. Courtesy of New Line Cinema and Warner Brothers Pictures.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

SHAFT

Rated R, 1 hour 51 minutes

Directed by: Tim Story

Starring: Jessie T. Usher, Samuel L. Jackson, Regina Hall, Alexandra Shipp, Richard Roundtree, Luna Lauren Velez, Avan Jogia

What would a bravado-driven, womanizing, tough-talking character as indelible as the eponymous one in 1971’s blaxsploitation classic SHAFT look like in our current politically correct, #MeToo-era? The paragon of rough justice, swagger and machismo probably wouldn’t have survived in the decades since, and thus, a skewering satire is born. Director Tim Story’s SHAFT, a multi-generational action-comedy about the youngest namesake needing to “man up” (whatever that means) in order to solve a crime and get the girl, never properly taps into the raucous comedy of the circumstances to give us anything remotely witty or satisfactory. What should be an irreverent send-up turns into a glorification of the good old days of toxic masculinity.

JJ Shaft (Jessie T. Usher) hasn’t grown up with his father John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) being a prominent presence in his life. Any gifts he received from his dad were inappropriate ones like porn, condoms and a random Super Bowl ring. When he was a baby, mom Maya (Regina Hall) fled Harlem with JJ as a preventative measure, because John’s undercover cop gig put their lives in constant jeopardy. And without a strong male role model in JJ’s life, he becomes a Gap-sporting, polite pushover – everything that would make his father recoil. But the two dynamically different personalities with the same name will be reunited soon enough.

JJ’s MIT degree has landed him a desk job at the FBI in the cyber unit, where his demanding boss Agent Vietti (Titus Welliver) treats him like a doormat, failing to harness his ambitious gumption to best help the bureau. JJ, frustrated by the lack of upward mobility, thinks he’ll be relegated to wearing the “rookie” title forever. However, when his best friend/ war vet Karim (Avan Jogia) turns up dead from a heroin overdose (in such a suspiciously staged, unintentionally funny scene it wouldn’t take a detective to decipher it), JJ springs into action. He enlists the help of the toughest private eye he knows: his estranged dad, who (what do you know) has long-standing ties to this case. Now, this mismatched pair – one too macho for his own good and the other too meek for his – must work together to solve the crime. That is, if they don’t kill each other, or get themselves killed, while doing it.

Regina Hall Jessie T. Usher and Samuel L. Jackson in SHAFT. Courtesy of New Line Cinema and Warner Brothers Pictures.

Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow’s screenplay is pungent with subtle and blatant forms of sexism, misogyny and homophobia that could’ve easily and cleverly been fashioned into a dagger and turned around on the title character. John is positioned as a relic of the past, a fossil somehow preserved in time, until the picture begins to genuinely value and glamorize his outdated philosophies as assets. The father and son learn from each other, but it’s the younger Shaft who’s forced to change the most – discovering that guns are a necessary tool for defense, but more importantly, a way to win over the ladies. One action set piece has his smart nurse pal Sasha (Alexandra Shipp) completely enamored by him blowing away baddies as The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” plays over the slow-motion shoot ‘em up.

John, who advises his progeny early on that “men never apologize to women,” experiences the smallest of metamorphoses, learning to apologize to a woman – but he only does so for sexist ulterior motives. The pair’s debate over whether or not it’s okay to hit a threatening woman (Luna Lauren Velez) should’ve been an enlightened conversation given Barris’ perceptive deconstruction of all things taboo on his successful sitcom BLACK-ISH. Yet it’s totally ham-handed in execution. The homophobic jokes fly faster than the bullets shot out of John’s pistol. The film is littered with them – from the long-running gag about the veteran’s charity name (“Brothers watching brothers”), to John’s digs at his son’s effeminate decor (despite the prominent LORD OF THE RINGS poster that completely upstages one scene). Plus, there’s a portion of the narrative that’s incredibly Islamophobic, despite it stating otherwise.

Sure, seeing John Shaft Sr. (Richard Roundtree) kick butt again in the climax adds a splash of fun. But even he deserves a better vehicle. In addition to its ribald sense of humor, clumsy exposition and predictable sight gags (like the comedic reveals when characters aren’t alone when expected) threaten to drag everything down further. It’s abundantly clear that the only ones getting the shaft are the audience.

Grade: D

SHAFT opens on June 14.

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