Synopsis – JJ Shaft, a cyber security expert with a degree from MIT, enlists his family’s help to uncover the truth behind his best friend’s untimely death.
My Take – I think most cinephiles know about the character John Shaft. A swift black detective, created by newspaper writer-turned-crime author Ernest Tidyman, who thinks of himself as a human being, but who uses his black rage as one of his resources, along with his intelligence and courage, a character who was brought to the big screen by the iconic Richard Roundtree, who played the character in three films and a single season on CBS.
While the series touched on issues of race, black power, and masculinity, but at its core was an entertaining, two-fisted, hard-boiled detective tale which went on to become one of the first and most popular blaxploitation films.
Years later, director (the late) John Singleton revisited the character in his 2000 film, with Samuel L. Jackson taking up the role as John Shaft’s nephew/ son, John Shaft II. Although hardly groundbreaking, the film ended up being a solid, slick and entertaining thriller, driven by Jackson’s chummy performance.
And even though the film was financially successful, the proposed sequel never came into fruition, well, that is until now.
Coming 19 years and almost five decades after the original portrayal, this sequel was created in an attempt to modernize the blaxploitation roots of the original, however, without any of its charm or originality, this latest film in the series instead comes off as a lazy studio effort to profit on an old staple.
With its offensive jokes and TV-pilot production values, this Tim Story directed film makes a lazy attempt at updating the character to contemporary action-hero tastes, and its identity crises goes a lot deeper than the title it confusingly shares with two earlier films.
Granted, the original films were never lacking in humor, and Shaft always had the right quip at the right moment. But the winking slapstick humor makes this film less like a follow-up and more like a parody. As a result, the only thing which survives here is the energetic performance from Samuel L. Jackson and his great chemistry with Jessie T. Usher.
Acting as a loose sequel to the 1971 and 2000 films respectively, the story follows John Shaft Jr. (Jessie T. Usher), aka JJ, an F.B.I. a cyber analyst, who has been shielded his whole life by his single mother Maya Babanikos (Regina Hall) from the violence that surrounds the Shaft family. However, his life turns upside down when Karim (Avan Jogia), his childhood friend, a former vet and a recovering addict dies just the next day after their meet up.
While Sasha (Alexandra Shipp), his other childhood friend is sure that it was a simple overdose, JJ is convinced about a nefarious cover up. With no one to turn to JJ gets in touch with his father, John Shaft II (Samuel L. Jackson), an old-school private detective who operates in his own offbeat way.
While JJ’s own FBI analyst’s badge clashes with his dad’s trademark leather duster, there’s no denying family. But unknown to JJ, Shaft’s got an agenda of his own, and a score to settle that’s both professional and personal.
It’s easy to figure out here that there isn’t much to this plot. It makes room for a love interest in the form of Sasha, and a veteran’s support program called Brothers Watching Brothers, and a mosque, but they’re all elements that exist to excuse either a gunfight or jokes about stereotypes and prevailing attitudes.
Instead the film’s screenplay ranges from middling to borderline offensive, as Alex Barnow and Kenya Barris’ script hits the most cliché story beats possible, placing the audience in a meandering mystery that fails to develop much intrigue.
Surprisingly, this fifth entry is more of a comedy than the thriller vein adapted by the previous films, and plays more like a cross between a raunchy family sitcom and a mismatched-buddy film in the vein of director Tim Story’s Ride Along series.
The film actually starts off with an interesting-enough idea: that John Shaft’s son would turn out to be a sensitive, computer-literate softie, rather than a super-bad, street-smart tough guy like father and grandfather. But the filmmakers eventually turn that idea into a dumb comedy, with all the usual uptight vs. laid-back clashes. While fans of both the series and the character, will undoubtedly get some big laughs whenever the film plays on series tropes and calls back to the previous entries, and the banter between cool-cat father and nerdy, uptight son is somewhat funny, but the lazy writing and wrongheaded stereotyping quickly send this sequel down the drain.
The contrast between John and JJ made up for the bulk of the humor which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise considering its laziness. John takes his verbal shots at JJ and his lifestyle and upbringing (and also today’s society as a whole) while the film made it abundantly clear that JJ is not cut out for John’s world.
Its overuse of f-words and n-words gets old very quickly but despite this, the lazy humor works more often than not thanks to the great chemistry between John and JJ. The story may be predictable, however, they are still incredibly fun to watch.
But it doesn’t help the fact that the film is a mess, awkwardly juggling heroin smugglers, a shadowy villain from Shaft’s NYPD days, a redemption arc, and assorted tone-deaf attempts at real-world relevance: troubled veterans, the ’80s drug epidemic and Islamophobia. For a film that badly needs the audience to know that it’s winking at some of the phonier conventions of the genre, the film seems overly concerned with saying something, but puts in minimal effort.
It looked like the filmmakers seemed to care more about their creaky, tired, unfailingly predictable plot mechanics only like from the early murder to the inevitable betrayal and kidnapping scenes, not to mention sluggish, sloppy action scenes, than their characters. The Shafts become thin, cartoonish versions of what began as a gritty outsider antihero.
However, there’s a real sense of joy in seeing three generations of the Shaft family, clad in black turtlenecks and leather, swinging through the plate-glass windows of a New York City high-rise with guns blazing. Similarly, watching the Shaft men swagger their way through traffic in matching trench coats is also a real delight. The issue is that it’s all posturing, and their actions feel meaningless given the generic proceedings and their even more generic class of villains, all of which feel stripped from ‘80s and ‘90s direct-to-video actioners.
While a lot doesn’t work, audiences can rest assured that Samuel L. Jackson brings his usual dynamic energy. As the foul-mouthed titular hero, the actor gets to play into the extremes of his f-bomb dropping persona with some humorous results. Even when the material isn’t up to snuff, Jackson’s signature style often lightens the proceedings.
Same can be said for Regina King and Richard Roundtree, who while underutilized, deliver with a few sharp moments. Jesse Usher appears to be destined to be cast in unsuccessful reboots as the son of familiar characters in the successful original films, despite the fact that he absolutely hasn’t earned it. Here too he seems to be struggling most of the time. While, Alexandra Shipp and Method Man appear in largely wasted roles. On the whole, ‘Shaft’ is a convoluted and downright dull sequel that is an unbelievably drab despite the presence of Samuel L. Jackson.
Directed – Tim Story
Rated – R
Run Time – 111 minutes