Before my screening of Tim Story’s Shaft, starring Samuel L. Jackson, I went to work on revisiting the private eye’s legacy because that’s what you might be inclined to think that this latest iteration is all about.
In a way, you’d be right. The latest Shaft is about legacy.
Based on the characters created by Ernest Tidyman, screenwriters Kenya Barris (Girls Trip, Barbershop: The Next Cut and the upcoming Coming 2 America) and Alex Barnow (Family Guy, The Goldbergs) tapped the essence of the stories and characters that have come before this film; the nuances of what made Shaft such a bad mother– I’m just gonna shut my mouth.
The story is also about modernizing the character for the next generation.
In this regard, Tim Story (Barbershop, Ride Along, Ride Along 2), modernizes Shaft in a way that was unexpected. The trailer that riffed on the comedic aspects of the film and the banter between Samuel L. Jackson and Jessie T. Usher is not misrepresented.
It’s not the whole story though.
If anything the film has a level of intelligence and thoughtfulness with respect to the characters and their situations. Admittedly, this film’s set up doesn’t necessarily work as well as it could have, but it did serve as a way to reintroduce us to Jackson’s John Shaft II as he reprises his Shaft 2000 role. Story takes us back to 1988 and an incident which breaks up his wife and their son, John Jr.
Story treats us to a montage over the opening credits, evoking a feel of the time the character originated; you feel a sense of nostalgia as the montage shows Shaft’s attempts to be in John, Jr’s (JJ) life along with scenes from 2000 interspersed in between new footage.
Usher plays JJ, the younger Shaft, an FBI data analyst. He’s immediately shot down when he puts himself in the running for a big case (one that, ironically doesn’t need visibility) forcing JJ to act meek. Usher’s performance in these early scenes exude what the world thinks a typical millennial is: technology forward and incapable of standing up for themselves. I’m generalizing for the benefit of the story, which is the film’s second issue.
There’s a running gag about JJ’s sexual preference, which got to be a bit too much; a fundamental problem with the script as it tries to balance the values of the elder Shaft with those of the younger Shaft who has been coddled to the point where he can’t defend himself nor speak to women. Story, Barris, and Barnow intended this to be a contrast between the two characters as a way to connect them. In the context of layering the legacy, this contrast works.
The contrast also tries to “teach an old dog new tricks” as JJ enlists Shaft’s help to uncover the mysterious circumstances of JJ’s friend, Karin’s (Avan Jogia) death. JJ is the stiff lipped son who thinks his dad bailed on him. Shaft tries to teach his son how to release the energy that’s preventing him from being himself. There’s a scene in a bar where the younger Shaft breaks out some swift fighting moves. Shaft asks him where he learned his moves and the quick response was, “Mom.” Unfortunately, this joke is only the start of the condescending nature of the story.
The story tragically uses the guise of a detective story to lead us to Richard Roundtree’s Shaft along with the story’s villain. By this time, the comedic banter between father and son and the various contrasts between generations, exhaustion sets in because the villain and the conflict mean very little to the overall context of the story. Perhaps that’s the film’s point: ambiguity rules the day with multiple layers which obfuscate the truth.
Forty-eight years ago, Gordon Parks’s Shaft electrified audiences. It was a simplistic story by today’s standards. Tidyman used the characters and their environment to elevate the story. You believed Richard Roundtree was a badass who could handle himself. That’s what made John Singleton’s 2000 reboot a success: Samuel L. Jackson uses the same level of badassery, but his was born out of frustration with the system. In Tim Story’s Shaft, JJ’s instincts are coaxed out of him as the story moves forward, as if each piece of the puzzle feels like breadcrumbs leading him to the prize.
But the clichéd nature of the storytelling in this Shaft and the condescending banter, which felt more like a buddy cop story than a father-son bonding, misses its target.
Shaft is now in theaters and is rated R by the MPAA.