The Private Dick Who Is A Lazy Boomer Joke to All the Millennials Case File #147/My Year of Flops II #44 Shaft (2019)
It was not an encouraging sign that when I saw the first ads for 2019’s Shaft I assumed that it was an unusually ambitious, high-profile Capitol One campaign that found Jackson reprising his role as bad motherfucker John Shaft opposite O.G Shaft Richard Roundtree as his pops and newcomer Jesse T. Usher as the youngest Shaft, John Shaft Jr.
Alternately, I assumed that for whatever reason, at this late stage in his career Samuel L. Jackson thought it would be fun to strap on the old leather duster and play everyone’s second or third favorite Shaft again for a high-profile Netflix series.
My brain simply refused to accept that in 2019 a pitch like “It’s Shaft, only his son is a hipster millennial nerd, a real beta cuck soy boy Gluten-free Bernie Bro type, if you catch my drift, until his old man shows him that he needs to stop being a pussy if he’s ever going to get any pussy” would get the green-light at a studio and then become an actual motion picture that people like Samuel L. Jackson would then spend months of their lives bringing to fruition in violent defiance of the universe’s will.
My brain’s strong conviction that the 2019 Shaft was an elaborate practical joke rather than an actual motion picture was only strengthened when this singularly misconceived, misbegotten sequel received an even more staggeringly wrong-headed ad campaign rooted in hokey boomer memes that repositioned Shaft less as the coolest, baddest motherfucker on the planet than as your hokey uncle who posts poorly photoshopped anti-Muslim and anti-Millennial images on Facebook.
“The Only Old Fashioned I’m Serving Is a Good Old Fashioned Ass Whoopin’”, “How TF Do You Milk an Almond? I’m not drinking that Sh*t”, “The only IPA I Like Is Imma Put Yo A*s Through a Windshield” and “You Should Live Stream Me Putting My Foot Up Yo Ass” read these embarrassing, intensely unsuccessful attempts to go viral and appeal to kids it seemed to know nothing about except that they all dine exclusively on Tide pods.
These tragic attempts at memes, lumped together under the fabulously unsuccessful hashtag #Shaftsays are so embarrassing, clueless and tone-deaf that they almost qualify as weirdly inspirited anti-comedy, as a strangely knowing spoof of boomer humor, particularly as it relates to the young kids nowadays with their gluten free muffins and pronouns and Pokemon Go! and the damn iPhones they’re all addicted to.
I could do a My World of Flops piece just on the failed advertising of 2019’s Shaft but it makes more sense to do it on the film itself, which shocked no one by receiving mixed to negative reviews and then bombing. Apparently, “It’s Shaft, sort of, but now he's the kind of grumpy old codger you suspect voted for Trump just to piss off millennials” was a pitch moviegoers had no difficulty rejecting.
I would love to be able to say that the #Shaftsays memes grossly misrepresent the movie they’re so ineptly and unsuccessfully selling but they really do capture the sitcom-safe and dad joke corny tone of a movie overflowing with gay panic jokes and pussy jokes and millennial jokes and all manner of inter-generational hackwork.
In Shaft Samuel L. Jackson is a bit of an Austin Powers figure, a proudly regressive relic of an earlier, more debauched and hedonistic era comically out of touch with a “politically correct” contemporary world where saying things like “Do I make you horny?” or “It’s your duty to please that booty! Give her the shaft big boy” is considered offensive and sexist rather than hilarious and awesome.
Shaft asks us to ponder what we’ve lost as a culture when fathers are afraid to use phrases like “knee deep in pussy” with their sons out of fear of offending their delicate millennial sensibilities. The answer? Absolutely nothing.
Yet Shaft nevertheless finds it charming and hilarious that Samuel L. Jackson’s absent dad would send his son John Shaft Jr. Magnum condoms for his tenth birthday, and then subject his smart, accomplished, well-adjusted son to an endless series of taunts casting suspicion on his heterosexuality, blackness and masculinity after they’re reunited when Jr. seeks out his dad’s help on a case involving the murder of his best friend.
John Shaft Jr. (Jesse T. Usher, delivering a performance much better than the film deserves) works as a data analyst for the FBI. In our world, that’s an impressive, tough young job for an ambitious young man to hold. In the macho cartoon sitcom world of Shaft, however, people respond to Jr. telling them that he’s a data analyst rather than a field agent as if he just shamefully volunteered that yes, he has a micro-penis that ranks among the world’s smallest, but also that he’s never experienced an erection and cries like a baby every time a woman approaches him.
Shaft is ostensibly about John Shaft Sr. making up for decades of neglect by bonding with his very different son on a case that’s deeply personal for them both. In actuality, it’s about the accidental lessons in toxic masculinity John Shaft Sr. gives his son in an unfortunately successful attempt to keep him from being his own man.
In Shaft, being a man is mostly about loving guns, and embracing guns and firing guns with the deftness and accuracy of a Marine sniper. In the film’s most stylistically ambitious sequence, the sexy nurse Jr. has a hopeless crush on gets so visibly turned on watching Jr. shoot bad guys with great ease and nonchalance that she damn near has an orgasm just from watching a man coolly, unemotionally murder people.
She’s not alone! Regina Hall, who is twenty-two years younger than her very well-preserved leading man, yet somehow seems to be playing a character roughly the same age as Jackson and old enough to be the mother of a man in his thirties, similarly experiences clear-cut sexual arousal watching her ex-husband do what he does best, which is kills lots of people with guns, often while shouting wisecracks at them.
A good rule of thumb of Jackson: the louder he is, the less invested he is in his character. Jackson damn near shouts all of his lines here; this may be a legendary franchise but Shaft got the Snakes on a Plane version of Jackson, the mercenary hack who shows up, yells his lines, cashes an enormous paycheck, then moves on to the next gig.
Jackson doesn’t relate to his son as a father overcome with guilt over not being there for his son when he needed him most. No, Jackson relates to the son he half-abandoned as a Comedy Central Roast zinger-flinger delivering outrageous jokes at his son’s coconut-water-drinking, Sunday School-dressing Millennial ass’ expense.
Jackson’s John Shaft is an old school and analog in a digital, high-tech world, the kind of man who angrily announces, “I look like I’m on Facebook, motherfucker?” as if insulted not just by the implication that a scotch and cognac-drinking old school motherfucker such as himself would be on social media, but by the very existence of Facebook as well.
Usher begins the movie a lovely human being who abhors guns and violence and doesn’t feel the need to conform to a rigid conception of what it means to be a man, whether that pressure is coming from society or his family specifically. This apparently makes him weak and ineffectual, the kind of impotent girly man who will never get the bad guy or the girl unless he mans up and starts behaving like an arrogant, cocky, assertive alpha male like his father.
Usher is almost too likable and sympathetic. I didn’t want him to change. What the film tries to pass off as progression is actually regression. Shaft nevertheless labors under the misconception that Junior is the one whose personality and view of the world and needs to change dramatically for the sake of redemption when really it’s the cranky, sexist, gratuitously violent worldview of the character Jackson is playing that’s unfeasible.
Junior is written as a cross between a hipster Millennial Urkel and a black John Wick. Depending on the scene and the situation, he’s either a soft, silly, incompetent mama’s boy to be laughed at and pitied or a Jason Bourne-like dynamo every bit as preternaturally skilled at taking out the bad guys as his dad, who begins and ends the movie in a place of lazy, sleepwalking self-parody.
The most excruciating moment in Shaft draws a deeply embarrassing direct line to one of the most iconic elements of the original film. Late in the film the effete cuck dating Shaft’s old lady says admiringly of a man he understands is far more virile and authentic than he could ever be, “You know, they say that cat Shaft is a bad motherf-“ to which Shaft’s ex responds indignantly, “Shut the fuck up.”
It’s a callback that must have killed at test screenings with audiences overjoyed to get the clumsy reference to Isaac Hayes’ timeless masterpiece of a theme song. But the clunky paraphrase only highlights what a feeble little footnote this is to the Shaft saga. That’s similarly true of Richard Roundtree’s glorified cameo as the original Shaft, which is fun but also can’t help but remind us of better movies and funkier, more joyful and less despairing eras of American life, like the Nixon era.
Nobody asked for Shaft to lurch lazily back to life as a big-screen Millennial/boomer sitcom yet this exists all the same as yet another cautionary warning of the dangers of trying to extend franchises well beyond their limits.
In 1971, a massively influential movie named Shaft introduced an impressed world to a legendary black dick who is a sex machine to all the chicks. In 2019, this groaning, regrettable mistake ended the franchise with Samuel L. Jackson hammily playing a character who may be a private dick but is mostly just a dick personality-wise.
The original Shaft changed everything. What I pray to God is the final Shaft will change nothing.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure
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