A few nights back, I watched Diamonds Are Forever, streaming on my phone before bed. Despite its reputation as the worst Sean Connery James Bond film; there are fast cars, smoking cigarettes, and cooky jewel smugglers. There are also 45 minutes devoted to James Bond managing work-life balance because he’s concerned about his relationship with his wife and young toddler and wants to make sure he’s emotionally present.
Oh, wait. No there isn’t. Bond spends the movie gambling, making bad wisecracks, and strangling his enemies.
Diamonds Are Forever is not about being a good guy. It’s about killing bad guys and sleeping with beautiful women and ordering room service all the time. The film (and much better book) is pure escapism and that’s to its credit. That’s the point. Which brings me to the new Shaft, which I can no longer dig. Sadly. Shaft is, as Jessie Usher points out in the trailer to the newest franchise entry, “a black James Bond.” But because it feels like screenwriters are being told that the only way to make stakes interesting is to make men into fathers, escapist action movies can’t ever feel like an old Bond movie. Not even a bad one.
This new Shaft movie (creatively titled Shaft) will turn what was once a film franchise about sex, murder and saying badass shit to dudes in leather blazers into a movie about…family values? Now, I’m certainly going to see this movie, and I’m probably going to like it (Samuel L. Jackson and Richard Roundtree are objectively great) but why is this happening? I’m a father and I care profoundly about fatherhood, but I don’t need to see it everywhere all the time. I don’t need Liam Neeson to be a dad for Cold Pursuit to work. Or Vin Diesel in Fast and the Furious. Or Harrison Ford in Blade Runner. Or the Rock in everything.
Can’t I just watch Shaft shaft his way into sticky situations in peace?
In the trailer for the new Shaft, John Shaft Jr. or “JJ” (Jessie Usher) shows up on the doorstep regular Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) which results, of course in Samuel L. Jackson freaking out and calling him “junior.” At some point, the mother (Regina Hall) of Shaft’s son, screams “Please tell me you did not get our son involved in your bullshit!” She’s got a good point.
Now, I actually liked Jessie Usher in that insanely bad Independence Day sequel, so I’m sure he’s great in this, but I don’t really want to see a Shaft movie about father-son-grandfather issues. I just don’t. I want a Shaft movie to be, as the new trailer literally says, about “a black James Bond” who kills people, drinks a lot and has sex. The original Shaft is great not because it’s a piece of high art, it’s good because it’s sexy, violent, and fun to watch. I don’t want Shaft to become woke or relevant by making it into a movie about family and Shaft seeing the error of his ways. Because, once that happens, the illusion is broken; I become aware I’m watching a movie, a Hollywood product designed to make me think and feel a certain way. There seems to be a demographic triangulation influencing the plots of these kinds of movies. The meeting I imagine goes something like this: “Hey, we really gotta get that dad demographic out to the new Shaft movie, so let’s make sure the movie is about family and dads because that’s what sells now.” This thinking is wrong. You’ve got the dad demographic with the word Shaft. You’re done. You don’t need to dad-it-up even more than you already have.
Now, I’m not saying we need more movies in which men behave badly toward women, or that are regressive on purpose. That would be crazy. That’s not it at all. Instead, I just don’t think that every single male actor who is in an action movie over the age of 35 needs to be presented as a father. Or, to put it another way, I don’t need every single older male actor in an action movie to be presented as a father with issues. It’s not like the action dad is a good dad. Usually he’s a terrible father.
Remember how Harrison Ford was this great surly hardboiled cyberpunk detective in Blade Runner? Well, in the 2017 sequel he’s a deadbeat dad. Ditto for Ford’s return to Star Wars in The Force Awakens! Also Indiana Jones and the Legend of the Crystals Skull and that movie you forgot about with him and Daniel Craig as cowboys.
Can Harrison Ford ever just do a movie where he just jumps off a dam to avoid Tommy Lee Jones? Maybe not. But this is exhausting. Even in the movie where he plays the president and a dad and throws a dude off Air Force One, childcare is not discussed. Harrison Ford should be like the friend that you do things with but never get to know on a human level. Everyone likes that guy. He brings beer.
On some level, we probably should blame the Fast and the Furious movies, which have made all of the money and featured people talking about“family” all of the time. Now, I loved Fate of the Furious. My wife was still pregnant with our daughter when I saw it, and I thought the scene in which Jason Statham rescues’s Vin Diesel’s infant son was amazing. I also loved the Rock’s relationship with his daughter in that one, too. But, none of that means I want to see more movies about the Rock or Vin Diesel as Jason Statham as action dads. I mean, for fuck’s sake, at this point any new movie with Bruce Willis seems like it will be an action dad movie because of some invisible secret law we don’t know about. Did Sylvester Stallone hold Liam Neeson, Harrison Ford, and Samuel L. Jackson at gunpoint, and require them all to sign a contract stating they would become action dads; like, in perpetuity? Did Cold Pursuit need to be made? What about Skyscraper? (That’s not even a related question. That movie was just bad.)
Representation of good fathers in pop culture is important, but when it comes to escapist narratives, the trope of a father-son or father-daughter action movie is getting a little stale. And with the newest Shaft seemingly being assimilated by this trend, it feels like even the most down-and-dirty action characters are being made family-friendly. You could argue this could be a sign of social progress, and maybe it is.
But, then again, if you want social progress, why not just do a new Shaft with a younger, sexier male actor and not have it be about family or fathers or whatever. Why not just let Jessie Usher be the new, more woke-Shaft and move on? Guys like me will still go see the movie, and we might like it even more if we know we can really escape into that movie. It’s nice when action movies can transcend their genre and be something more. But sometimes, when you’re a tired dad, you don’t want to watch something that reminds you of being a dad. You don’t want to watch something transcendent. You just want to sit back, watch Shaft kick some ass, and for two hours, to forget yourself.