Orange Thursday: Shaft (2019) and The Lego Movie 2 (2019)

Shaft
Shaft (2019)

Every Thursday, TMINE reviews two movies, carefully avoiding infringing a former mobile phone company’s trademarked marketing gimmick

This week’s movies have absolutely nothing in common, beyond the fact that they were both released this year and I watched them this week. So let’s not pretend I have a grand strategy, and let’s get right down to it with reviews of:

  • The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (2019) – sequel to The Lego Movie, in which our plastic figurine heroes and heroines must fight a slightly lumpier plastic figurine menace from the planet Duplo.
  • Shaft (2019) – sequel to Shaft (2000) and Shaft (1971), in which three generations of the Shaft family unite to fight the man.

All that after the jump.

The Lego Movie 2

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (2019)

Available on iTunes and Amazon

The citizens of Bricksburg face a dangerous new threat when Lego Duplo invaders from outer space start to wreck everything in their path. The battle to defeat the enemy and restore harmony to the Lego universe takes Emmet, Wyldstyle, Batman and the rest of their friends to faraway, unexplored worlds that test their courage and creativity.

Brick bats

The Lego Movie was one of those odd family movies that was brilliantly witty and satirical while still offering plenty for kids to enjoy. Naturally, hopes were high for the sequel, despite The Lego Batman Movie not being in anywhere near the same league.

Oddly, that throwaway scene at the end of the first movie becomes the entire foundation of the second movie. And if the first movie was about the need for children to be allowed to play and for adults to butt out, here it’s the flipside – brothers and sisters should not just be allowed to do whatever they want, but should play peacefully with one another or else their parents will take their toys away.

To be fair, the movie’s corollary to that is if boys don’t learn to play nicely with their sisters, they’ll end up violent incels, which is a novel and admirable message, at least. But it does militate against the untrammelled imagination and fun of the first one. The fact there’s much less unrestrained mockery of Batman, the Justice League and other franchises also reins in the movie’s punkish rebellion.

The Lego Movie 2
The Lego Movie 2

Chrismas

The movie does try to be a bit a different from the original, at least. Here, the action alternates between Duplo world in the ‘sistar’ system and the regular Lego world, corresponding to the two children’s different play styles. It’s not well demarcated, but you can see that’s what they’re trying to do.

All the same, it’s all a little reductive here, with the ‘sistar’ system a bit obsessed with pink things, queens and marriages, while back in Lego world, we’ve got spaceships, dinosaurs and an intergalactic space rogue voiced by Chris Pratt.

But the movie’s eventual message – the latter world is just a recipe for long-term misery and destruction, so boys should learn to play nice in pinkworld and gain some empathy and kindness – does at least break up the stereotyping by asking boys to be girlier for a change. Similarly, the ‘sistar’ world does at least critique Lego world and Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks)’s playing of second fiddle to Chris Pratt’s Emmett for no well explored reason.

There are also smart touches peppered throughout, such as its explanation for how the two Lego Chrises can fight each other in the ‘real world’ – “We’re just having a metaphorical tussle in an adolescent’s subconscious!” – and there are a few decent jibes at Justice League, with Jason Momoa himself turning up to voice the new Lego Aquaman and Green Lantern getting a good mocking, too.

And there was, unbelievable enough, perhaps even as a sop to me personally, a great reference to Marvel’s Iron Fist.

Add to that a few amusing micky-takes of Twilight, with Noel Fielding of all people turning up to voice a sparkly vampire, and The IT Crowd fans getting a simultaneous reunion of Fielding and Richard Ayoade – not to mention Pratt’s sending-up of his various other movie personae – and you can tell it’s not a dead loss by any means.

The Lego Movie 2

Bricking it

All the same, a lot of it is a retread of the first movie. It also frequently relies on the characterisations and groundwork done there, rather than devote any time to expanding the supporting characters. Even Lego Batman gets short-shrift. On top of that, all those little touches around play, such as the way horses moved like they were being picked up and moved around, aren’t added to, just repeated.

Still, while not the work of near-genius that The Lego Movie was and nowhere near as imaginative either, The Lego Movie 2 does have plenty of moments that lift it above many a movie. I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch it if I were you, but if you do watch it, you won’t be wasting your time.

Shafts
Shaft (L-R) ALEXANDRA SHIPP as Sasha, JESSE USHER as John “JJ” Shaft, SAMUEL JACKSON as John Shaft and RICHARD ROUNDTREE as John Shaft, Sr.

Shaft (2019)

Available on Netflix

John Shaft Jr may be an FBI cyber security expert, but to uncover the truth behind his best friend’s untimely death, he needs an education that only his dad can provide.

Absent throughout his childhood, the legendary John Shaft agrees to help his son navigate the heroin-infested underbelly of Harlem, NY. Besides – the locked and loaded Shaft has his own score to settle, both professional and personal.

Shaftless?

Although mired in the 70s genre of blaxploitation – a genre he more or less started – the character of John Shaft (played by Richard Roundtree) was an important one, both in the movies and societally. It was perhaps the first time that a black man had been the star of a US movie and had been allowed to be strong and virile. Small wonder that his appeal extended to sequels and a TV series, and the Shaft theme is still recognisable to this day.

However, as with a lot of things in the 60s/70s, what worked for that generation and was groundbreaking has retrospectively become problematic. Certainly, in an age of #MeToo and enduring concerns about single parent families and violence in black communities, the idea of a gun-toting black man ‘loving and leaving’ women looks a lot like a recipe for disaster, rather than a role model.

Small wonder then that when Samuel L Jackson ended up playing Roundtree’s son 30 years later in the 2000 movie Shaft, his was something of a neutered character without any real traits, other than his rampant opposition to privileged white folks (Christian Bale) and being Samuel L Jackson.

Now, nearly 20 years we have a third generation of the Shaft family, this time played by Jesse Usher. Along for the ride are both Jackson and Roundtree.

That, for a start, is impressive. Sure, there have been franchises in which the children and relatives of characters have carried on the family tradition – think The Falcon movie series in the 1940s, the Maverick TV series in the 1960s or the two latest Die Hard outings, with Willis’ supposed son and daughter.

But how many have featured three generations at the same time, all played by their original actors? Not many, if any. Kudos, guys. Particularly Roundtree, who’s very spry, it has to be said.

However, the question was always going to be: what’s the point? Do you actually have something to say with these characters? Or are you just going to feel a bit nostalgic for the 70s when men were men and women barely got a name check?

Shaft

Black-est

Impressively again, the answer here is yes, Shaft (2019) does have a lot to say for itself, mainly because it’s co-written by the creator of black-ish, Kenya Barris. Barris takes an interesting route, following in the path of The Mechanic/The Mechanic 2 by just ignoring what the two previous movies established about their characters, beyond a few head nods at holding up traffic, in favour of turning Roundtree and Jackson into the archetypal idea of John Shaft. He also makes Shaft (2019) something near to an outright comedy.

Here, Usher is a millennial incarnate, a computer-literate FBI analyst rather than anything stereotypically manly. He has no ‘game’ with women and instead treats them with respect. Meanwhile, Jackson is basically Jackson as Roundtree’s Shaft crossed with toxic masculinity – a man with no time for computers, who thinks going to college is ‘unblack’ and who thinks that apologising to women for bad behaviour is a mortal sin. He’s also a homophobe, a transphobe and a misogynist.

Barris navigates an interesting path, siding with neither man. He definitely doesn’t hold up Jackson as a role model, but does show that Usher needs to learn a little more self-confidence and a little more sass (or even, dare one say it, ‘blackness’). At the same time, Jackson definitely needs to learn from his son how to back away from his worst mistreatments of others, particularly women.

Indeed, Jackson Shaft has to learn from women, too. Because Usher’s mum (Regina Hall) is also very important in this, as is his best friend/would-be girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp). They’re both along for the ride and while the focus is definitely on both Jackson and Usher, Hall and Shipp both get a lot to say and do.

Jackson does some of his best work in quite some time here, avoiding the obvious ways he could have coasted in the part. He’s strong when he needs to be and funny when the role demands it. Similarly, Usher resists trying to ape his elders and instead carves out a performance that mixes sensitivity, comedy and the occasional, developing fieriness.

Roundtree plays an interesting role here, too. He doesn’t get to do much, the bulk of the investigation going to Jackson and son, but he’s like an eternal überman, a constant signal that even the hippest, manliest black man in the world – Jackson – can still be outmanned. The race to be an alpha male is always a losing race, because there’ll always be someone even more alpha out there. And that man is the original John Shaft. You ain’t getting any manlier than that.

Samuel L Jackson in Shaft

Shafted

Shaft works well as a comedy, with plenty of often hilarious lines, often at Samuel L Jackson’s perceived real-life/movie profile. It’s also a nuanced piece of societal analysis, wrapped up in something entertaining – a musing on what it is to be both black and a man in America. What toxic parts of the past can be redeemed, embraced and made positive, while which are harmful? How can black men and women go forward together for each other’s benefit?

As an action movie or even as a private detective movie, however, it’s dry and a bit rubbish. Fights are weak, implausible and PG-13, despite a bit of capoeira. The FBI and computer scenes are clumsy, as is the investigation itself, which doesn’t require too much thought and if you do think about it, you’ll find it falls apart very quickly.

So don’t go in expecting Shaft (1971) or Shaft (2000). Instead, think Black-ish: The Action Movie and you’ll have the mindset needed to really enjoy the latest Shaft. It might even give you some things to think about.