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June 23, 2019

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Latest ‘Shaft’ chooses sitcom over gritty

THE latest “Shaft,” which adds a new generation of “bad mother xxxxxx” to the mix, is not what you might expect. It’s not gritty or raw or even attempting to be all that cool. Instead it maintains intoxicatingly upbeat sitcom-style energy, with gentrification jokes, generational jabs (mostly at the expense of millennials) and Samuel L. Jackson, reprising his nearly 20-year-old role as John Shaft II, seemingly having a blast every step of the way.

It’s not that it’s sanitized or without violence. There are guns, many of them, and of the automatic assault variety. But this is the kind of movie that will play The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” during a big shootout, and not in a Scorsese kind of way.

It’s hard not to be on board with the liveliness and the generally sharp writing. The film starts off so well in 1989 Harlem.

Regina Hall (Maya) is dressing down Shaft for his reckless life choices and he’s not really having it, but their conversation gets interrupted by an ambush that almost kills Maya and the baby we find out later is in the back seat.

So Maya moves upstate to the suburbs with little John Shaft Jr (or J.J.) to raise him away from danger (and his father).

Shaft is there in J.J.’s life through the occasional Christmas present which, over the years include a New York Giants Super Bowl XXV ring, Magnum condoms and pornographic magazines. J.J. grows up to be a nice young fellow and MIT grad who wears slim-fitting jeans and shirts buttoned all the way to the top and works for the FBI (aka “the man”). He’s played, charmingly, by Jessie T. Usher.

The mysterious death of his friend, and his inability to investigate on his own, leads him to his dad’s office to ask for some help.

He gets more than he bargained for in terms of late-game fatherly advice on how J.J. is failing to be a man, and, specifically, a black man worthy of the Shaft name. And so this odd couple sets off to solve a murder, and, you presume, learn some lessons from one another as well. All well and good right?

Not exactly.

Director Tim Story and writers Alex Barnow and Kenya Barris made the pretty curious and unforgivable choice to imbue this story not just with a generational divide, but with all the antiquated and offensive worldviews from the “good old days” that they could fit into two hours.


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