‘Shaft’ is a Case Study in How to Ruin an Iconic Character

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There’s one word to describe Tim Story’s new riff (sort of a sequel, sort of a reboot, sort of a spoof) on Shaft, and that word is baffling. It’s hard to conjure up, even with the liveliest of imaginations, why anyone thought it would be a good idea to put the character of John Shaft, the badass private eye at the center of a trio of ’70s “blaxpoitation” classics and a 2000 hard-action follow-up, into a broad, wacky, generation-gap big-screen sitcom. But someone was certain it would be a good idea, and convinced enough other people, enough to finance it and produce it and distribute it, and now here we are, with a feature film that turns arguably the coolest character in movie history into a cranky old fart.

The set-up: via a 1989 prologue, we discover that Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) once had a wife, Maya (Regina Hall, wasted), and a baby boy, John Jr. But when John’s police work put them in danger, Maya fled upstate and raised “J.J.” on her own. Fast-forward to the present, where J.J. (Jessie T. Usher), though estranged from his father, lives and works in his native New York City (or, at least, the closest facsimile that the producers could slap together in Atlanta, where the movie was shot).

He works as a data analyst in the FBI’s NYC headquarters, so we’re treated to several sub-CBS procedural series sequences of cliché-ridden FBI debriefings and computer hacking (including, swear to god, in 2019, a scene of extended explanation of intricate encryption, followed by 10 seconds of typing and an immediate “I’m in”). In narrative terms, the film is closer to Beverly Hills Cop than Shaft – J.J. is stirred to investigate the death of his childhood friend, and in desperation, he has to turn to his “private dick” father.

When he comes to the door of John Shaft Investigations, he’s greeted by a nude woman covered in glitter – and then by Shaft himself, with glitter in his beard. Get it? And with that, the new Wacky Shaft is off and running, as the script by Kenya Barris ( Black-ish) and Alex Barnow ( Family Guy) strains to see how many tired variations it can wring out of Shaft being a) horny, b) violent, and c) un-woke.

To be clear: all of this might matter less if the jokes were at least funny. But they’re terrible, seemingly penned not by two professional writers, but by a junior high kid who just learned his swears, or Michael Scott mining for double-entendre. Sample joke: the Shafts are talking to some of the dead man’s other friends, and one mentions that recently, “He starting pulling away.” Shaft jolts to life, as if waking from slumber, and replies, “Pulling out?” Because he thinks about sex all the time, you see. (It gets more dire: by the end of the movie, they’re so desperate for laughs that director Tim Story just points the camera at a TV showing an old Robin Harris special.)

John Singleton’s 2000 version (Jackson’s first go-round as Shaft) had its problems, but at least it got the tone right, and understood the character. But playing John Shaft for broad laughs is, and I’m not sure how to be clearer on this, just wrong. And Jackson is adrift. The character he created for the earlier picture is gone entirely, and this time he’s just playing Samuel L. Jackson – the slightly exaggerated comic version of Samuel L. Jackson, the one you might remember (but probably not) from such gems as The Man and The Hitman’s Bodyguard.

There are plenty more complaints to register – the embarrassing score, the wooden acting, the inept staging, the TV-style alternating-close-up coverage, the utter lack of personality (it looks, sounds, and feels like a two-hour pilot), the ret-conning of Shaft’s relationship with the original John Shaft (Richard Roundtree), who we were told was this Shaft’s uncle in the 2000 version (which at least made their seven-year age difference plausible), but we’re now assured he was just “pretending” (???) and is in fact, Shaft’s dad.

But instead of dwelling on such concerns, it’s worth drilling down on what, exactly, Barris and Barnow have done to Shaft – a truly iconic character, in an era where overuse has rendered that designation all but meaningless. Because it’s not just that they make him into a stereotypical stymied oldster, arguing over radio stations and bitching about texting. It’s the abundance of moments in which… well, in which you can feel the hand of the Family Guy writer rather than the Black-ish writer. The scene, for example, wherein Shaft complains about his son’s insistence that he not hit a female suspect, because “I’m an equal opportunity ass-whupper.” Or when the FBI director interrupts his series of debriefing clichés to complain about his “7-year-old daughter who wants me to call her Frank!” Or the running (and I do mean running) gag of Shaft observing his son being, y’know, sensitive or polite or wearing skinny jeans, and taunting him about how “your mom has really f*cked you up.”

These kids today are soft, ya see, and real men are tough, and as Shaft tells his son, “Women want a man to be a man. They don’t want some p*ssy!” And in the world of Shaft (and this Shaft) there’s nothing worse than being a p*ssy. “Are you on the down-low?” Shaft demands of his son, early in the film. “Because that would explain a lotta sh*t. Do you like p*ssy?” Ha, ha, ha. (At risk of putting too fine a point on it: Shaft should prove hilarious to anyone who liked the jokes that lost Kevin Hart the Oscar gig.) Later, he tries to get specific with his kid: “What are you, a metrosexual, heteronormative, cisgender – stop me when I tick your box!” Ho, ho, ho. And then, of course, there are the two consecutive scenes of independent, intelligent women being visibly aroused by the sight of a man handling a gun. Mmmmhmmm.

The non-Neanderthals in the audience are likely to spend much of the picture waiting for the turn – for Shaft to see the error of his throwback thinking, to have to learn to be a better man. But aside from a half-hearted scene where he has to (gasp) apologize to his ex-wife, the film isn’t about the taming of Shaft, but the “toughening” of Shaft Jr: it’s the story of a father teaching his nice kid how to be an aggressive, gun-toting asshole. It’s a flowery valentine to toxic masculinity.

And yes, I know, I know, at least part of the reason why the movie works like that is to troll for reviews like this. It’s rather obvious bait for outrage, which is part of why they’ve put that element front-and-center in the advertising, with our man Shaft spouting sub-Maher bon mots like “How TF do you milk an almond? I’m not drinking that sh*t!” And to be fair, it’s not like the earlier films – particularly in their attitudes towards women – were altogether progressive-thinking (though it’s worth comparing the 1971 film’s perspective on gay characters to the “no homo” panic of this one). But those films were anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment, and this was a key part of their DNA: in an era in which the strides of the ’60s seemed to disappear by the day, in which the Panthers were being defanged and the revolution was being postponed, the original Shaft trilogy gave us an honest-to-god black superhero, when that audience needed him most.

And this is basically the polar opposite of what Story and his writers have done by turning John Shaft into Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing character – because, though the likes of Maher and Carolla may attempt to assure you otherwise, Fox News-style social conservatism is the status quo, the establishment, a trait of those with authority and power. Shaft has become The Man, and not in the good way. I suppose you might enjoy Shaft if it doesn’t take much to entertain you, and you’ve never seen a Shaft movie before (or maybe you just saw the 2000 one once, like when it first came out, and weren’t paying much attention). But if you know thing one about John Shaft’s history and legacy, it’s downright depressing – not just because it’s reactionary and unfunny, but because it’s clear that no one involved in its making (including, sadly, Jackson or Roundtree) gave a damn about who the character is, and what he means to people.

Shaft opens tonight, June 13, in wide release.