Even with weak writing, ‘Shaft’ has its moments

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows from left, Alexandra Shipp, Jessie Usher, Samuel Jackson and Richard Roundtree in a scene from "Shaft." (Kyle Kaplan/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

If you can stomach the nonstop swearing and bad behavior, “Shaft” is a fascinating cultural artifact.

In the ongoing debate about modern masculinity — between a more genteel, millennial maleness and old-fashioned sexist tough-guys — this entertaining actioner comes down squarely on the side of the latter.

That’s not necessarily a good thing; but it’s an interesting voice in the conversation — and because Samuel L. Jackson does most of the talking, it pretty much demands to be heard.

The idea seems to be that if you’re trying to protect your son, or your grandson, or your girlfriend, or your baby — if, for example, they’ve been kidnaped or attacked by vicious drug lords with big guns and no scruples — maybe a little old-fashioned butt-kicking is in order.

That’s pretty much the plot in this film, which is a sequel to both the 1971 hit and its lesser-known 2000 follow-up. In this latest iteration, Jackson plays a descendant and namesake of the original character made famous by actor Richard Roundtree and song-writer Isaac Hayes. Here Jackson’s middle-aged detective, schooled in the rough-and-tumble crime-world of the nineties, is contacted by his own son to help solve a murder that eventually leads to a world of trouble.

This youngest Shaft, nicely played by relative newcomer Jessie Usher, is a milder modern man who doesn’t like guns and who clashes with the brutality and sexism of his estranged father. But in the long run, this clash is simply no contest: Jackson’s weightier machismo basically bulldozes everything else — and in any case, the younger Shaft eventually proves just about as tough as Dad.

Yet the film is not always simplistic; while it’s clear that the movie’s women really do want men who can skillfully shoot first and (maybe) ask questions later, it opens with a convincing rant in which Jackson’s Shaft is being bawled out by his girlfriend, disgusted by both his violence and his sexual gusto. And while he keeps trying to seduce her even after they’ve long broken up, she never lets herself be steam-rolled, as we might expect in a film that was truly misogynistic. On top of that, there’s just enough touchy-feely here — yes, from both Shafts, and from a third man who shows up later — to suggest that real men are both tough and tender.

Unfortunately, the movie’s actual script hardly warrants all this philosophizing. There are some good laughs and surprises, but on the whole it’s stiffly written, with a pedestrian mystery in which far too much is explained in flat, stale dialog. Indeed, in these few moments when the characters stop dropping five-a-minute F-bombs, one sees how weak the writing really is: take out the swearing, and it simply dies.

Yet I can’t say I was bored. The action scenes are swift and absorbing, and the relational dynamics (fathers & sons, boys & girlfriends) are warm enough to keep us engaged.

I only hope with such important issues on the table, that viewers don’t leave their brains at the door.

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