The new “Shaft” is an upgrade that’s also a downgrade. It’s not a “blaxploitation” movie, whatever that would now look like (at this point, the concept is meaningless). It is, rather, a rudely conventional, entertainingly junky badass-for-the-megaplex action comedy. Yet since the film has the audacity — or maybe it’s just the shameless huckster savvy — to go out with the exact same title as the 1971 Gordon Parks classic, as well as the fun-in-a-violent-forgettable-way 2000 John Singleton remake, you may ask: What is this, exactly? A sequel that’s also a reboot, though with the same cast?
Actually, it’s the ultimate subordination of street-thriller attitude: the reduction of “Shaft” to that old thing, a trash-talking shoot-the-works buddy-cop movie — which is just old enough that it may now be sort of a new again thing. For a couple of barely respectable hours, the movie dishes up the cookie-cutter combustibility of crime-fighting partners who are temperamental opposites: a veteran and a rookie; an office naïf who goes by the book and a maverick who tossed the book away a long time ago; one borderline crazy, the other too sane for his own good. It’s “Bad Boys” meets “Training Day” meets “Freebie and the Bean,” overlaid with a processed sheen of blaxploitation nostalgia.
It’s also a father-and-son bonding movie, since the characters in question happen to be John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson), down-and-out private dick (in every sense), and the son he abandoned 30 years ago, JJ Shaft (Jessie T. Usher), who shares nothing with his dad but his name.
JJ, raised by his mother (Regina Hall), is a respectable millennial with a degree from MIT, who toils away in the New York office of the FBI as a data analyst. Early on, a kid in his neighborhood surveys JJ, in his red plaid shirt and gray-knit tie, and says, “Where you work? The Apple Store? Or a Panera?” That more or less sums up the film’s bombs-away sitcom snark, and when JJ, moments later, confesses, “I’m not a gun guy,” that sums up its theme. “Shaft” is going to be a glorified cartoon riff on dueling notions of masculinity.
Not that it’s a fair fight. JJ, in his role as desk-jockey hacker, is presented as a savvy but overly officious law enforcer who is so responsible that he’s fundamentally emasculated. Yet Jessie T. Usher is a fast appealing actor, and he doesn’t play JJ as a geek stereotype. He’s more like a latter-day Young MC — a dude who’s got the gift of gab but is totally comfortable with his conventional middle-class soul. The movie’s message, of course, is that he needs a little Shaft in his life.
Enter Samuel L. Jackson, whose Shaft is so set in his street ways that he’s now a fatal relic, a pleasure-loving Dirty Harry of Harlem who lives by his own rules. He guzzles cognac before noon, treats the women he dates like strippers, and is as likely to interrogate suspects with a smashed jaw as a leading question. Looking at his overly presentable son, he asks, “What kind of business could your Don Lemon ass need from me?” For the rest of the movie, he proceeds to berate JJ for being too white and not enough of a man. All of which makes “Shaft,” in its admittedly formulaic and even trivial way, a movie just timely enough to seem almost topical.
Pop culture often has a dimension of counterculture, and if JJ, with his painstaking sensitivity and politeness, incarnates “enlightened” male attitudes, Shaft is on hand to put those attitudes on trial. A real man, says Shaft, never apologizes; instead, he owns who he is. That’s the sort of thing a movie can say to an audience without, in fact, having to apologize for it. But is “Shaft” endorsing Shaft’s hustler caveman point-of-view? Yes and no. It’s saying that JJ needs to be more daring, and that Shaft, for all the raw glory of his inner-city appetite, needs to respect the rules. But the movie is mostly saying that JJ needs to become a gun guy, and when he does, it’s “crowd-pleasing,” though you may look at him and think, “Where the hell did that come from?” It’s supposed to come from JJ hanging out with his happy vigilante of a father, but it really comes from a glib action comedy’s ability to turn, however implausibly, on a dime.
“Shaft” was co-written by Kenya Barris (the co-writer of “Girls Trip,” and a writer-producer on “black-ish”) and the TV scribe Alex Barnow (“The Goldbergs,” “Mr. Sunshine”), and it’s got one of those plots that’s an interlocking series of only-in-the-movies situational abstractions. JJ’s buddy, Karim (Avan Jogia), a war veteran and recovering junkie, is found dead of a massive overdose. JJ spends the movie trying to find out what happened to him, an investigation that leads him to drug dens, a mosque that may be a terrorist front, and a support group for veterans that Karim founded.
It’s mix-and-match thriller MacGuffin clichés, but the movie barely pretends to be interested in this generic crime plot. It’s more intent on milking the name of the support group (Brothers Watching Brothers) for a running joke that flirts with homophobic paranoia, and with giving Jackson the ultimate rude and crude way to explain things like how Shaft owns a personal computer. “I won it in a game show called Beat the Shit Out of a Piece of Shit Drug Dealer,” says Shaft. “You get to keep that shit!” Samuel L. Jackson, with a goatee shaped like twin daggers, his voice kicking into high dudgeon, tosses off a line like that one as though he’s been doing it for 25 years, which of course he has. But he has never lost his fever, and it remains contagious. He swaggers with style.
“Shaft,” the 1971 original, isn’t the movie that kicked open the door to the blaxploitation revolution. That, of course, was “Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song,” the incendiary indie blockbuster released just two months before “Shaft.” But “Shaft” was the movie that packaged blaxploitation into a brazenly commercial studio-approved form. The credits sequence is justly legendary: the danger of the theme song, with its wah-wah guitar triggers and lordly bass groove and velvet stud narration, laid over those documentary shots of Richard Roundtree (looking, in his long brown leather coat, like Marvin Gaye meets Stagger Lee) wandering through Times Square, all of it adding up to a sequence as mesmerizing, in its way, as the opening of “Saturday Night Fever.” But once the film settles into its gumshoe-thriller groove, it becomes a glorified episode of “Kojak.” “Shaft,” as a movie, mostly lacks danger, which is one reason why both the 2000 “Shaft” and the new one don’t feel like violations of it.
Yet the original film had Richard Roundtree, who filled it with his presence, and the smartest thing the new “Shaft” does is to take Roundtree — as John Shaft, Jackson’s father — and turn him into a character who’s hotter, and cooler, than anyone around him. Bald, with a snowy-white beard, Roundtree may look every one of his 76 years, but his spirit is spry and tougher than leather. It may sound nuts to say this, but in “Shaft” he humanizes gun fetishism. He turns violence into playful defiance, uniting the characters in a multi-generational trinity of pulp machismo: the father, the son, and the holy motherf—ker. The movie is product, but by the end you want to see this team again.