“How can you look 20 years older than my grey a*s?” Richard Roundtree’s John Shaft, Sr. exclaims upon seeing his son in Tim Story’s latest update (sequel? remake?) to the long-running Shaft franchise. The same sentiment can be applied to the film itself, which, despite its glossy, contemporary sheen and purported relevance, has a distinct whiff of staleness to it. Ironically, the presence of the original Shaft (Roundtree appeared as the womanizing private eye in four films between 1971-2000) is the most original, coolest thing about it.
The plot is as perfunctory as it gets: legendary Brooklyn detective Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) “babysits” his 25-year-old son JJ (Jessie T. Usher), helping him out with a case involving the death of JJ’s best friend. JJ is a cybersecurity expert, who works as a Data Analyst for the FBI, his geeky, contemporary vibe clashing with his dad’s old-school, erm, charm – therein lies the foundation for the majority of the film’s “odd couple” jokes. There’s also Shaft’s old flame, JJ’s mom Maya (Regina Hall), who almost gets riddled with bullets every time she gets close to her boo.
“…legendary Brooklyn detective Shaft ‘babysits’ his 25-year-old son JJ, helping him out with a case involving the death of JJ’s best friend”
Maybe in the early 1970s filmmakers could get away with blatant sexism, misogyny, racism, and general bigotry. 50 years later, however, a running joke about how naming a PTSD-support group “Brothers Watching Brothers” makes the group sound gay comes off utterly distasteful. Shaft is crammed wall-to-wall with racial stereotyping. “The boy speaks Mexican, not Puerto Rican,” Shaft proclaims. “This is my ‘Puerto Ricans I don’t trust’ file,” he says at another point. A mosque is racially profiled. Gunfights harden women’s nipples; the mere notion of John’s considerable shaft makes the ladies’ knees wobble.
Shaft attempts to hide its own prejudices by simply acknowledging those issues, without so much as a trace of depth or substance. It constantly reiterates that there is a generational clash between Shaft and his son, yet at the end tilts towards the son adopting his father’s aged mannerisms as opposed to the dad learning to adapt to the rapidly-changing world. Yes, Shaft learns to say sorry – literally, one measly “sorry” – and all his sins are instantly forgiven, his charisma and abundant toxic masculinity prevailing once again.
The film isn’t above potty and slapstick humor either – e.g., a character vomiting on another’s face – just in case you forget you’re watching a Tim Story film, the man responsible for such enduring “gems” as Ride Along and its sequel. The graphic violence is shrugged off, as inconsequential as most everything else in the film (including the poor supporting cast). Every beat of the formulaic plot is so predictable. The writers would’ve been better off just writing some lines for the three Shafts and having them verbally spar in a room together while jamming out to some slick 1970’s tunes.
“Christopher Lennertz’s soundtrack perfectly encapsulates that 1970’s cool vibe – this is baby-making music, putting most contemporary hits to shame.”
Which brings me to the film’s two saving graces: the lead performances and the soundtrack. Samuel L. Jackson has the uncanny ability to elevate any project he’s in (and he’s in a lot of motherfuckin’ projects); watching him turn a flurry of swearing and gibberish into borderline-Shakespearean monologue is fascinating as ever. He inhabits his character, transcending his flaws and making us root for him – or at the very least, admire his bravura/confidence/wit. Jesse T. Usher keeps up, counterbalancing the fiery Jackson energy with low-key charm and unexpected displays of Capoeira fighting skills. Roundtree turns it “up to eleven” during the film’s closing sequences with his cheeky, stalwart presence.
“I think you might’ve been conceived to this song,” Shaft tells his son at one point. I wouldn’t be surprised. Christopher Lennertz’s soundtrack perfectly encapsulates that 1970’s cool vibe – this is baby-making music, putting most contemporary hits to shame. During the film’s highlight sequence, John and JJ Shaft go clubbing together – the music almost acts as a character, fusing past and present more effectively than anything uttered by the cast (certainly lines like, “There’s nothing junior about this Shaft!”). Perhaps this would’ve worked better as a standalone soundtrack. Perhaps Shaft’s grown a little limp over the years.
Shaft (2019) Directed by Tim Story. Written by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow. Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie T. Usher, Regina Hall, Alexandra Shipp, Cliff “Method Man” Smith and Richard Roundtree.
5 out of 10