Movies

If Nothing Else, ‘Shaft’ Proves That Samuel L. Jackson Is A National Treasure

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For about an hour and 15 minutes, the new Shaft movie has three big factors working in its favor: modest stakes, solid pacing, and one of our most enjoyable actors kind of just strutting around talking shit. It’s hard to overexpress the simple joy of watching Samuel L. Jackson do that Samuel L. Jackson thing — you know, where he listens wide-eyed to someone’s story, becoming more incredulous the entire time until he finally cocks his head sideways in mock disgust, letting out a quiet sigh as prelude to some perfectly delivered chestnut of creative vulgarity (“Oh, you ready to blow? Well I’m a mushroom cloud-layin’ motherfucker, motherfucker…”)? Yeah, I could watch that all day.

And given that the first hour and change of Shaft largely consists of that, along with foot-tapping musical cues and a breezy father/son cop plot, it’s pretty enjoyable. But at some point, the film, from director Tim Story (whose filmography mostly ranges from execrable to forgettable) and writers Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow, decides it needs to wrap up every single thread from a background plot we mostly didn’t care about and throw in a victory lap Richard Roundtree cameo. Guys, please, quit while you’re ahead.

So John Shaft’s (Samuel L. Jackson) son, JJ (played by Jesse T. Usher) has grown up without his father, who separated himself from his infant son and Maya (played by Regina Hall) to keep them safe from retaliatory drug dealers. In his father’s absence, JJ has flourished, attending MIT and becoming a data analyst for the FBI. But unlike his father, he’s kind of a dork, hopeless with women, needlessly buttoning his top shirt button Elijah Wood-style, and sleeping under a framed Lord of the Rings poster.

When the murder of a childhood friend forces Junior to seek out his father to help him infiltrate the underworld, Shaft becomes this odd couple buddy cop movie where blaxploitation era sex machine dad and his woke millennial son try to teach each other lessons about the world as they navigate it. If you’ve ever seen Cobra Kai on YouTube, in which grown-up Johnny Lawrence (Billy Zabka) from Karate Kid has to try to figure out which macho lessons he learned in the ’80s are still applicable, this Shaft has a similar dynamic, albeit with about 50 percent less introspection.

Mostly Samuel L. Jackson clowns his movie son for “acting like a pussy,” not beating enough ass or chasing enough ass like a real man. Dad is presented as a throwback, but very few of the lessons go the other way, and JJ by and large tends to be rewarded the more overtly violent and overtly sexual acts (lesson? gunplay makes ladies horny). Shaft is clearly not here to analyze the genre.

There is something mildly refreshing about how little Shaft seems interested in any form of introspection. Which is authentic in some way — how often do boorish dads really learn a lesson? And would them developing empathy make them more funny or entertaining? Probably not. Shaft‘s jokes end up landing pretty well and the acting is solid from top to bottom. Usher may not be the mesmerizing scene-chewer Jackson is, but he plays a complicated role with deftness and charm. Meanwhile, apropos of nothing, there are a couple of one-off jabs at trans people (Junior’s FBI boss: “I got a seven-year-old daughter that wants me to call her Frank”) that feel more like Freudian slips of the filmmakers than organic story choices. (Evergreen note to commenters: I’m not the one introducing politics here).

Also: can we stop with the “older tough guy has never used a computer before” writing crutch? Both Cobra Kai and Shaft (to name just two) attempt to sharpen the contrast between their throwback characters and contemporary times by presenting them as completely computer ignorant. Which is good for one or two cheap laughs, but you know what would be funnier? Exploring the older generation’s computer illiteracy in an honest way. Most Boomer parents I know have not only heard of Facebook, they use it more than their kids. They’re just really bad at it. And frankly, there’s a lot more material there than another tired “what in tarnation is an ‘Instagram?'” joke. It’d be wonderfully entertaining to watch Magnum PI or whoever get red-pilled.

An even worse sin is… well, basically Shaft‘s entire third act. After being delightfully breezy about the whole murder plot — which involves drug smuggling, a mosque, a non-profit organization for veterans, and a Puerto Rican grocery store — for the whole first two-thirds of the movie, in the last third Shaft decides it needs to tie up every loose end. As Jay Cutler allegedly once said, dooooonnnn’t caaaaaare.

Even worse, Shaft believes we absolutely must have a Richard Roundtree cameo joining the other Shafts for one last caper and retconning the previous Shaft reboot for good measure (Sam Jackson Shaft, introduced as Roundtree Shaft’s nephew in the last Shaft movie, is now his son…). Guys, we absolutely, positively, double dog don’t care. All dramatic tension evaporated and there was a palpable collective checking of watches in the theater.

Naturally, every studio wants to have its own absurdly lucrative Avengers franchise, but can we not copy all the worst parts of the Marvel Universe? I came to watch a movie, not attend a pep rally for your brand. So, while I cannot resist an hour plus of delightful Sam Jacksonian shit talk, neither can I in good conscience recommend you staying for the entirety of this film.

‘Shaft’ opens in theaters on June 14th. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.

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