So, uh, Shaft is back. I’m not sure who was clamoring for this one, but sometimes we get stuff we don’t ask for. If you haven’t been following, this is the sequel to the late John Singleton’s 2000 redux of the 1971 original, all of which have the same title, and the fifth film in the Shaft saga overall.
In 2000, we met Samuel L. Jackson as John Shaft, private detective and nephew (!) to Richard Roundtree’s original character, also John Shaft. I think the filmmakers actually forgot about that while writing this one, because Roundtree shows up again as the grandfather figure to Jackson’s son J.J. Shaft (played in nebbish fashion by Jessie Usher). Basically, the math doesn’t check out, especially when taking into consideration that Jackson and Roundtree are only six years apart in age.
For all its exploitational nonsense, the 1971 film actually spoke to a certain social conscience. The 2019 version deals with a whole host of hot button issues – systemic and institutionalized anti-Muslim tendencies, rampant crime in the inner cities, the code of the streets, the crack and opioid epidemics, vile and rampant homophobia, and even the metrosexualization of masculinity and the fetisization of “strong men.” I’m sure I’m forgetting some – maybe gun control, for a stretch, or how one drives a Camaro SS in the streets of New York without insurance or a license – but you get a sense of all that’s thrown against the wall.
The script by Kenya Barris (Black-ish) and Alex Barnow (The Goldbergs) is a convoluted mess that tries its best to be both offensive and redeemable at the same time. It feels more than a little like an R-rated sitcom gone badly. Only the unabashed enthusiasm of Jackson’s don’t-give-a-shit attitude makes the film even remotely watchable. Usher’s role is thankless and he can’t maintain the balance between the “good kid” FBI data analyst and his father figure.
Shaft the elder (but not elder-elder) is a character out of time, brashly ignoring any modicum of political correctness. He spends his days off the grid, taking cases and hooking up with ladies. (We meet him with his goatee dripping with the aftermath of a pleasuring session.) He commands respect from all the gangsters in the hood. For J.J., well, he’s got a soldier friend (Avan Jogia) who’s messed up, another a doctor (Alexandra Shipp) whose skills seem to be limited to kisses on the cheek and screaming “Put pressure on it!” from off screen, and a mom (Regina Hall) who left his father to protect her son from his world.
There’s a plot about a drug kingpin, and another kingpin of kingpins, and for some reason a tall office building with a little place for a major drug deal to go down. It feels like the writers were stoned watching the end of Die Hard back-to-back with the opening scene of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and thought, “Huh, we can make a Shaft movie out of this!
I’ve already put more thought into this than the filmmakers have, which may be part of the point. The intention is to create big, dumb, summer action fare with some added frisson of over-the-top African American culture. Despite its infantilizing and outrageously tone-deaf ridiculousness, the film fails not out of offensiveness, but through middling execution. Its brashness is more boring than anything. It’s like watching a toddler scream swear words; for a brief moment it may be amusing and outré, but soon you want the meltdown in the middle of Walmart to stop already.
Such is the case with Shaft. The movie has maybe 20 minutes of the pilot for a risible TV show, stretched to an almost intolerable feature length. When things finally come to the conclusion, it’s all over pretty quickly, making one wonder why the rest of the film didn’t just have the three Shafts murder their way to the top of Manhattan.
Oh dear, I fear I may have given someone an idea for the next chapter.
This new Shaft is a disaster, exemplified by the war crime of a cover version of Isaac Hayes’ theme song that closes the film. Loaded with autotune swoops and gravelly rap, it’s a musical abortion, embodying all that’s wrong in trying to take something classic, put a new coat of paint on it, and somehow think it can stand up.
Shaft is bad, full stop. Shut it down already.