Shaft (2019)

I like music and movie themes are always a favorite, but you can count on one hand the number of movie themes that can single-handedly rescue a movie from mediocrity and make you care about something that is average. Whatever residuals Lalo Schiffrin gets for Mission Impossible, he has earned ten times over for that movie series. Isaac Hayes is gone but his estate should get a big check for making these movies work as well as they do. As much credit as I want to give to the theme song however, there is one other essential component that also fills the film with the value that it has, the lead actor. In the 1970s Richard Roundtree became a star playing the part of the cool private dick who is a sex machine to all the chicks, and he swaggered through three films magnificently. I don’t really know why it took 19 years to get back to the character after the 2000 version of the film, because the lead actor then and now makes the theme song real.

Samuel L. Jackson may have matinee idol good looks like Roundtree did, but he has all the attitude and charisma needed to power a movie like this. I have seen Jackson act. In “Pulp Fiction”, “Jackie Brown” and “Jungle Fever”, he is a real character with quirks unique to each story, but in a lot of films he plays “Samuel L. Jackson” the poet laureate of the “F” word and the bad ass with a mouth that won’t quit. “Shaft” gives him the chance to use those basic cartoon skills in a pretty standard action film, but elevate that action to something more entertaining than gunfights and car chases. Jackson makes the movie he is in fun because he is having fun being in it. This is his fourth film released this year and it’s only June.

The twist in this version is that Shaft is passing the baton so to speak to his son, an MIT nerd who does data for the FBI. Jessie Usher plays J.J. Shaft as if he is a newb in the big world because he has stepped out from behind his computer screen and stepped into Harlem proper. There is a lengthy backstory about the relationship, or lack thereof, between father and son. Shaft doesn’t really know his child and finding out his faults and strengths are the main beats of the story. The movie is filled with offhand putdowns and double takes as Shaft tries to connect with his long lost son. Regina hall gets a female role that is much more substantial than any other in the franchise history, although it is still mostly a side part and primarily for comedic purposes. As a helicopter Mom, who never really stopped loving the man who was her son’s father, she has kept the two apart, so naturally she is aghast when they reconnect. Usher let’s his wardrobe do most of the acting in the first part of the movie but as he and Jackson begin to settle into a relationship, he is much more effective.

The plot deals with the usual investigation of a death that is actually connected to illegal drug trafficking. Because the story is in a hurry to get Junior and Dad back together, it is a bit rushed, and I’ll be damned if I can explain why the victim was killed in the first place, but none of that matters. What matters is that there are insults, badass behavior and some fun fight scenes. Director Tim Story does not have a track record that inspires much faith in an action film. His two Fantastic Four Movies are not very popular among the comic book geeks. I don’t really know his comedies, having skipped them entirely. He does seem to understand the milieu of  urban comedy and that all works in his favor because this is the Shaft movie that is supposed to be funny. There were occasional lines in the other films that would amuse but clearly this movie deserves it’s classification as a comedy on IMDB.

One final note, this movie also features Richard Roundtree in the last quarter of the film. In the previous version he was supposedly Uncle John Shaft, and the part was a brief cameo. The producers made a wise decision to make his role more central to the story and characters and it gives us a lot more to care about and laugh at as well. “Shaft 2019” may not be the classic that the original film was, but it is an entertaining night at the theater (or in front of your TV if you are not in the U.S.), so enjoy it and don’t think to hard about it. Just let the song wash over you like a warm memory of awesomeness past, and listen to Jackson go off, you should be fine.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I loved the first Captain America movie. I thought that the World War Two setting and the idealistic persona of Steve Rodgers was exactly what it should have been. The movie was very straightforward about the good guys and the bad guys. I’m also a big fan of The Avengers, I thought the splicing of the character into the modern story and the SHIELD organization took what we were given and ran with it. The mix of the super heroes helps keep some of the issues that Cap faces in the background, but the groundwork was being laid for future stories and an inevitable conflict between the Dudley Doo Right manner of our idealistic super hero and the harsh realities of the modern world and the spies that inhabit it.

“The Winter Soldier” puts Steve Rodgers back into the complicated position he found himself in during the Avenger’s film. He sees that there are enemies, but he also has to question the methods of those charged with fighting those enemies. A confrontation between Rodgers and SHIELD’s Nick Fury is brewing and we are being lead to believe that the spy organization is more malevolent than it originally appeared. It has been a popular pastime since the War on Terror became an official and public mandate, to question the means by which that war is being fought. Heck, those challenges have always existed even before 9/11. Bruce Willis and Denzel Washington went head to head over strategy on terror in “The Siege” back in 1998. Last year in “Star Trek Into Darkness”, another allegorical story questioning the wisdom of aggressive policies on terror was crossed with a pop culture icon. I was somewhat concerned about the moralizing that goes on, getting in the way of a story about a good man, given a chance to do good, being lost in this symbolism. Fortunately, it works out for the best because the story here subverts that self questioning canard, with an insidious plot that allows the hero to be the good guy by actually fighting actively against an identifiable conspiracy rather than his own left hand.

Chris Evans was born to play this part. Like Hugh Jackman before him, the character is molded to fit the actor and the actor submerges himself in the character. The Wolverine character has often been better than the movies he was featured in, and this film has the same double edged sword. “The Winter Soldier” is not on a par with “The First Avenger”, but the character of Captain America and the performance of Chris Evans, raises it to a level of excellence that will satisfy the fans. The plot is very convoluted and the twists are best left out of the discussion so that an audience can discover their pleasures and frustrations on their own. I will say that there are two things that are set up as reverse twists, that you will see coming a mile away. So, it is not quite as clever as it wants to be. That aside, the motivations and actions of the characters are even less clear than those in the first big screen “Mission Impossible” which was famously filled with “huh?” moments. You will ultimately figure it out, but it will confuse you and there is still at least one major question that does not get clarified. It is only of minor concern for the film because ultimately this will be judged as an action piece and at that it succeeds admirably.

The early action sequence involves Cap and the Black Widow, again played by a nicely amusing Scarlett Johansson, engaging in a rescue mission on the high seas. It turns out that the mission has multiple components to it that set up the rest of the plot, but the execution of the action was fun and the combination of teamwork by the SHIELD insertion group and the Captain was just enough to get us started and to show what we will eventually see as a necessary precursor to the plot. Later in the film, Samuel Jackson’s Nick Fury gets a long chase segment and he uses the technology and wily experience available to a spy to bring off a pretty impressive stunt based scene. There are two follow up sections in the movie that also involve driving chases and they are solid as well but sometimes feel a little repetitive. The final battle scene is long and complicated and it looks spectacular, even though it is a little over the top. There are some clever plot twists that take place during the battle that make it a lot of fun as well. The movie does manage to keep some of the spirit of fun that made the first Captain America so effective. There is some sparring dialogue between Cap and the Widow, and a new character adds some comic relief as well as some grounding to the proceedings.

The plot line of the character of “The Winter Soldier” is set up dramatically, and the payoff is realistic in the end rather than sentimental. Key players from the first movie make welcome returns here and the conditions of each of those characters is a nice realization of the goals of the story. Fans of the comics will already know one of those characters but the other two were solid resurrections that while not essential for plotting, do contribute to giving the stories a sense of continuity. I could still use a few more light hearted contributions from a Tommy Lee Jones or a Stanley Tucchi like character. The presence of Robert Redford adds some gravitas to the story but not the energy that a movie like this could really use.  I did enjoy the sudden insertion of a more engaged Jenny Agutter for a moment or two, and Emily VanCamp could be a successful addition to the franchise with the right follow up. The real hero of the story is the honest soul of Captain Steve Rogers. His impromptu speech and rallying of the troops is exactly the kind of leadership that his character is supposed to inspire. I for one am completely ready to follow him on the next adventure.