Updated: Feb 8, 2020
John Shaft is a cool private eye who works in Harlem, does not trust “the man,” loves the ladies and relies on brute force, instead of actual detective work, to solve his cases. He comes from a series of novels by Ernest Tidyman and was first introduced to the screen in 1971, as played by Richard Roundtree. Coming out at the height of Blaxploitation, it dealt with race and politics. It also had a very popular soundtrack. It got two direct sequels and a television show, then was restarted in 2000, with Samuel L. Jackson as Shaft’s nephew (here he is changed to his son). Despite lacking the cultural impact of the original, it was still fun and kept the spirit of the character. Now comes the third movie named Shaft, a sequel to all of its predecessors.
The protagonist is John Shaft Jr., the son of Jackson’s Shaft who had to leave him and his mother in order to make sure they were safe. While investigating the death of his best friend, he teams up with his estranged father. A lot of male bonding, fish out of water comedy and casually violent gun battles ensue.
The filmmakers of this one seemingly have no clue what made the character interesting or significant in the first place. This time around, the tone is far more buddy-action/comedy. Most of the jokes come from the older Shaft’s sexism and homophobia, though I am unsure if the movie is making fun of him for having these views or if it is mocking Jr. for trying to be “PC.” Regardless, the result is an uncomfortable mess that is neither funny nor exciting.
This Shaft (107 minutes, minus the end credits) spends a lot of time riffing on what it means to be a man. Jackson’s Shaft thinks he is suave. To him, being a man is about toughness. Show no weakness, use women like objects and shoot first, ask questions eventually. His son, played by Jessie T. Usher, is more thoughtful and plays by the rules. The elder Shaft considers his son’s desire to treat women with respect to be ridiculous. First he wonders if he is gay, then he concludes his mother raised him “too white.”
The screenplay has no idea what to do with this stuff. Instead of doing anything with it, it just uses it for repetitive, tone-deaf, gags. Is the Jackson character right about people today being too soft, since his way has been successful for him? Or is he an ignorant dinosaur who has been left behind by modern culture? Based on what is here, I do not know what conclusion I am supposed to make, but most of this leads me to believe the movie leans toward the former viewpoint.
However, it has some serious issues even beyond its ugly, offensive, humor. The story in these types of productions are irrelevant. The case is just complex enough to take them the running time to solve, yet not so complex that it distracts from the characters (maybe that would have been a good thing here). More problematic is the action, which is boring, poorly choreographed and mainly there to show off how cool the Shafts are. Since the characterizations are so stereotypical, this usually consists of them easily dispatching their moronic enemies, complete with slow-motion gunfire and close-ups of them looking unnaturally relaxed in the face of danger. If you are unworthy of those things, you are either a soft male or a woman (they get to be sex-starved or fiery, not cool).
Basically everything about Shaft 2019 is ill-conceived. From the characters to the tone to its sense of humor. It turns this cat who is a bad mother (shut your mouth!) into a caricature ready-made for a franchise I truly hope does not happen. The earlier entries at least attempted to make a point with their protagonist’s actions. This one uses it for empty entertainment. All it ends up being is loud, thoughtless and unpleasant.
¾ out of 5
Samuel L. Jackson as John Shaft
Jessie T. Usher as JJ Shaft
Regina Hall as Maya Babanikos
Alexandra Shipp as Sasha Arias
Luna Lauren Velez as Bennie Rodriguez
Directed by Tim Story
Written by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow