For some reason the latest “Shaft” feels like payback. This is a standard, sometimes cliché action picture with a satisfying plot, familiar characters and one new idea. That idea is a corker.
Among the sundry groups supposedly protected by today’s “political correctness” are African Americans. But then how do you explain this: John Shaft, played again by Samuel L. Jackson, is reading a paper with the headline “All Lives Matter”?
The self-appointed moral critics will be offended by Shaft’s assumptions about women, by his bald statements about racial groups, his vigilante violence and his confidence that he should be his own arbiter of taste, morality and duty.
But as we watch him take his son (another John Shaft, this one played by Jesse Usher) around Harlem, we just about can’t help but prefer Shaft to everybody he meets. Including his probably-too-sensitive son. Including the law enforcement types. Including his wife (Regina Hall).
And especially including her dinner date, a more refined black man who actually says “Okey-Dokey.” That guy can be as sensitive and caring as he wants — we’ll still prefer the man whose gunbattles play out to Isaac Hays music.
Under the opening credits we learn that young John has gotten annual politically incorrect Christmas presents from his father — Mother took the kid away to raise after a shootout endangered their lives. Junior has graduated from college, a computer whiz, and has gotten a job with the nation’s currently embarrassed domestic law enforcement agency at the NYC FBI office.
Then a boyhood friend, a Muslim and a U.S. Army veteran, is killed, supposedly by a heroin overdose. Junior wonders about that — his pal was a founder of a group of vets who are former addicts and who have agreed to look out for each other.
But the authorities are satisfied the friend simply relapsed. So Junior seeks out his father and asks his help in investigating the death. Shaft then begins to drag preppy Junior through drug shooting galleries, soul night clubs, and the headquarters of a front grocery chain, jaywalking and cursing, slanging and fighting all the way around town.
Along the way we meet the girl of Junior’s dreams, his mother, her beau, a Puerto Rican drug kingpin who is a towering stereotype, loose women, a tough broad, and finally grandpa (Richard Roundtree, who played the Shaft character in Gordon Parks’ original movie). The fighting and chasing are amusing.
The plot is mechanical and familiar. Ma hates Pa but is attracted to him. Junior loves the girl but is too shy to kiss her. The kingpin has held a grudge for decades. Grandpa keeps an arsenal in his apartment. Junior may drink coconut water, but he turns out to be adept as a “Brazilian dance fighter.” And his FBI boss is pathetically devoted to hierarchy.
Meanwhile, Shaft refers to “my ‘Puerto Ricans I don’t trust’ file.” His son may be worried that government social services suffer from a “lack of funding,” but the old man isn’t waiting around for help from anybody. He jokes about homosexuals and never has to parallel park.
His son’s place looks to him like “an apartment display at Pier One Imports.” He announces that “men don’t apologize” and, sure enough, by the end of the movie he’ll break that rule.
In that way he shows that his talk is mostly informal bluster. This is what those who are easily offended refuse to understand, isn’t it? We aren’t so bad as we talk. Though we are pretty “bad.”
“Bad” like Shaft’s disco era clothes, which are in their own way as ugly as the stuff Junior has supposedly bought at “The Gap.” And “Bad” like James Brown’s “Get Up Offa That Thing,” which plays during one of the movie’s limited but enjoyable shootouts.
As this “Shaft” plays, we get to see one of our most beloved movie stars taking shot after shot at those who would shame us for speaking our minds. Long may this Shaft stand.