R for the things that are in Shaft movies. There's a good deal of nudity. The violence and the sexual content are throughout the film. The f-word is every other word. You know, John Shaft? This is the bread and butter of the Shaft films (that I've seen). It prides itself on its vulgarity and this movie is especially commenting on how these films pride themselves on being completely uncensored. While there are more offensive movies by far, Shaft isn't exactly light viewing. R.
DIRECTOR: Tim Story
I don't think that there's been a movie that I've wanted to "Okay, Boomer" so hard since Gran Torino as Shaft. I will put my cinematic history on the line here. I've always tried to watch the original Shaft starring Richard Roundtree, but I oddly keep never getting to it. I think it was on a streaming service for five seconds. I watched the first twenty minutes late at night and the next day, it was gone. It's out of print and I don't know if I can explain a charge to my wife for a movie that I should just be able to watch anytime. Sure, the rental is probably only $2.99, but it's a $2.99 that I'm going to have a hard time justifying. So anything I say about the Shaft franchise is completely off-base because I only have the first Samuel L. Jackson entry to talk about with this movie.
Action movies tend not to be very vulnerable. Listen, I really dig action movies. I really do. While I may not be an expert at blaxspoitation, I have a fairly decent background at some really great films in the subgenre. Because action movies are a very specific thing, i.e. they are there to be mindless entertainment, many of these movies tend to treat masculinity as the end-all-be-all of what it means to tell these stories. I'm thinking of things like the James Bond movies, the Lethal Weapon films, the Die Hard franchise. When we made these movies in the '70s and '80s, it was fun to worship at the altar of masculinity. If you were going to make an action movie, that protagonist had to either be a womanizing man or a woman to be objectified. This was the world of Shaft. John Shaft stopped working for the man, which is sexy as heck. He took justice into his own hands and seduced as many women as humanly possible and it made him cool to do so. I mean, Isaac Hayes's classic titular song for Shaft really explained it all. In an odd way, the song and the film became this ourobouros of expectations for the movies. They held each other in check.
But as I pointed out with GoldenEye, it is hard to explain away the chauvinistic behavior as we hold ourselves to higher standards. What went from something commonplace ultimately becomes a cultural commentary, and thereby political. We go to a culture of wanting our cake and eating it too. We want to really rally behind a movie like Shaft in 2019. It stands as the product of a time that we've strayed away from. That's cool on paper, but in execution, it becomes kind of gross. Tim Story, whom I'm always trying to figure out, seems to love Shaft. The concept of Shaft, when the sexuality and the generic plots are stripped away from the character, is fundamentally about sticking it to the man. If anything needs to be said in 2020, it's that the Man is the worst and it comes back to the oppressed to take power. But to tell this message, Tim Story used the story of John Shaft, Jr. (really John Shaft III) to act as a juxtaposition to the old way. As the modern, woke person of color, JJ highlights how John Shaft hasn't really adapted to the 21st Century. He's emotional and vulnerable. He isn't afraid of technology. In short, he embraced what the Man has given him.
But because JJ isn't always busting heads and fleeing towards continual sexual conquests, he seems genuinely happier in his life. So when Story portrays JJ as naive, it means that whatever his dad says is right. The Sam Jackson John Shaft often espouses kind of creepy ideologies, but he's still the king of cool. Instead of JJ having that much of an influence on him, it kind of rides the other way. Really, the movie really embraces that this 60-year-old (even though Sammy is 72 and looks phenomenal) is right in his life of violence and sex. I know that Story implies that they improve each other, but most of the lessons are one way: John Shaft is still the baddest, well, you know.
I'm just talking about Shaft.
I was going to criticize the casting of Regina Hall as Shaft's ex, but then I realize that she was born in 1970. She looks great. Straight up. I had no idea. I thought she was this 20 year old playing John Shaft's ex, but she really can play both. I was floored at how that entire section played out. I got a little disillusioned with her in Little. (True fans of the Literally Anything: Movies will remember that I fell asleep during Little, meaning that I have no blog on that movie.) But she does a solid job in the film over all. Sure, Hall sometimes plays a little over-the-top. But a movie like Shaft really does allow for some hamming it up when it comes to performances.
But the points really should go to Jesse T. Usher for holding his own against two truly famous Shafts. I love Richard Roundtree in this movie, but it is absolutely absurd that he's in the film. I knew that was the way they were going to bring him in, by the way. Because it made no sense to bring in Grandpa into this story that really didn't tie directly into the Shaft family tree, I knew that he was going to be the weapons guy. (Also, as a family, did they buy those coats?) But Usher probably had this temptation to just do a Sam Jackson impression the entire time. Instead, there's something just fun about his performance. Yeah, I know that future generations won't ever really think of Jesse T. Usher as Shaft, but it does definitely work.
It's kind of bananas how much Shaft wants to be Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. If anything, it is the film in reverse. I know that lots of movies have tread into this pool besides these two films, but it is interesting seeing the reverse dynamic. I don't think it works as well as Last Crusade, which ties me back into the "Okay, boomer" message that the film espouses. But that dynamic still kind of works. By having these two characters being related and estranged, we get to have the two worlds colliding. Both are capable of achieving goals independently, but it takes the both of them and their Odd Couple dynamic to bring the whole thing into focus. Sure, one of the Odd Couple gets a little bit more respect than the other, but it's still a fun concept.
It's not a great movie. Stories in these kinds of movies aren't amazing. I think we all saw that the soldiers were going to be the bad guys. Also, the movie is uncomfortably homophobic and prides itself on being out of touch. But it is still a fun time. Shaft is always going to be a good time, but it never really transcends what it really wants to. I don't see another Shaft movie spiraling out of this film. It's kind of why the movie is named Shaft for the third time. It's always another reboot, rather than trust that the series will keep evolving.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.