Shaft contains the unsurprising revelation that John Shaft is not on Facebook.
Nor any social media. He’s a sideburned ’70s icon who is still very much of that era, so if you are offended by the movie’s R-rated comic look at the unreconstructed OG — some might say toxic — masculinity on display in Shaft, don’t go after him on Twitter, because he won’t be there.
Also, he’s fictional, so there’s that.
As such, we can believe that even at 60, he remains, in the words of Isaac Hayes, the black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks. He’s also still in Harlem, still the only guy around who won’t cop out when there’s danger all about.
The danger is all about his estranged son JJ (Jessie Usher), raised since infancy by his single mom and Shaft’s ex Maya (Regina Hall), who wanted her son out of danger, and so raised him in a safer, blander environment to be book smart rather than streetwise. JJ graduates from MIT and is crunching numbers for the FBI when he suspects his best friend has been killed by Harlem drug dealers, and launches his own investigation.
They lean into jokes about college kid JJ being out of his element on the mean streets. As he wanders about looking for clues on his smartphone, a neighborhood kid looks at his cloth tie and Gap madras and wants to know if he’s lost and trying to find his way back to Panera Bread.
JJ’s first encounter with drug dealers goes badly, so he contacts dad to help him navigate the Harlem underworld. And, in the manner of a Hardy Boys mystery, JJ’s investigation turns out to be directly related to an unsolved case from John Sr.’s past. The story is just a format for more broad comedy — JJ’s fish-out-of-water experiences, augmented by jokes about the generational perspective of the two men, who represent different strands of masculinity: prefeminist and millennial.
Shaft Sr. visits his son’s apartment and is stupefied by his son’s wardrobe (does Nike make badminton sneakers, he wonders?), and a dwelling that includes a Lord of the Rings poster and lacrosse sticks. (Some of the best jokes derive from Wynn Thomas’ production design.) JJ assures his homophobic father that having a lemon tower doesn’t mean you’re gay, and wonders if dad really thinks it’s always wrong for a man to apologize to a woman. The latter dynamic figures into the late-breaking interaction between Shaft Sr. and Maya, but Hall hasn’t much to do here but scream as her car or hotel room is ripped apart by bullets.
There is nothing politically correct in this movie, which, like Shaft, is adoring of guns — even JJ’s physician girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp) carries one, though she implausibly thinks her right to do so comes from the First Amendment.
The real bonds in the movie is among the men, in all of their iterations — all leads to a multi-generation reunion that brings in Richard Roundtree, from the Gordon Parks original, who looks amazing, and enjoys his victory lap.
Shaft. Directed by Tim Story. With Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie T. Usher, Regina Hall, Richard Roundtree, and Alexandra Shipp. Distributed by Warner Bros.
Running time: 1 hour, 51 mins.
Parents’ guide: R (violence, language)