Directed by Tim Story.
Staring Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie T. Usher, Richard Roundtree, Alexandra Shipp, Regina Hall, Matt Lauria, Avan Jogia, Lauren Vélez, Method Man, Almeera Jiwa, Ian Casselberry, Aaron Dominguez, and Isaach De Bankolé.
Detective John Shaft, estranged from his son, an FBI agent, joins him as he tries to solve the murder of a childhood friend which soon leads them to confront a large drug-ring conspiracy.
Samuel L. Jackson returns to reprise the role of detective and private investigator John Shaft from John Singleton’s uneven yet vibrant 2000 Shaft. While the character is virtually same, the story world of the last entry seems to have been forgotten with almost no characters from Vanessa Williams to Busta Rhymes except Jackson returning (it also plays with the previous entry with Shaft now officially the son of the original Richard Roundtree Shaft instead of his nephew) But as in 2000, Shaft’s main antagonists are drug dealers and racists – with the slight addition of Islamophobic baddies.
This time, however, director Tim Story adds a layer of father-son tension with Shaft’s son, John Shaft III or JJ (Jessie T. Usher), an FBI agent trying to solve the murder case of a childhood friend. The Singleton entry had many issues from confused editing to shaky plotline. Nevertheless it had charismatic lead performances by Christian Bale and Jeffrey Wright to keep the film energized and lively. This 2019 Shaft feels rather sluggish both in terms of pacing and performances.
The plot is rather a standard action film as Shaft and JJ slowly uncover layers of a large drug conspiracy. JJ plays the straight man and Shaft is the loose cannon. While some of the humor is solid the majority of the jokes and wit are thoroughly dated and offer nothing new. Musically, the soundtrack meanders through rather stale numbers save for a few unexpectedly well-chosen hip hop songs. For the most part, Story rehashes old beats from Martin Scorsese to Brian De Palma to Singleton with the introduction shamelessly tapping footage from the 2000 entry.
Stylistically, the film is more cohesive than the Singleton entry but there is dearth of innovative visual imagery or narrative flourishes to keep the audience engaged. Since Shaft is the titular star of the film there is no real tension that he is ever in danger. Shaft’s son is also going to be immune as is visually hinted at through some clever clues; JJ’s room has a Lord of the Rings film poster giving away that like Frodo and Sam, Shaft and his progeny will complete their quest almost totally intact.
The film should be working overtime to make up for this lack of tension; instead scenes follow one another mechanically with efficiency but no passion. The reasons for why this Shaft is relatively tepid may flow from two sources. One is that Story is more rooted in the comedy genre (having directed Ride Along) and he brings that orientation to this entry of Shaft. However, by the characters being so prone to jokiness, there is little expectation that a world where even with bullets flying and fights happening every fifteen minutes that death is a real obstacle for the heroic duo to overcome. Whatever else, the Singleton entry had a sense of lethality with the shadow of police brutality mixed in with gang killings in the background (however imperfectly handled).
Secondly, the culture clash between JJ and Shaft is more corporate than authentic. While Jackson brings his usual profanity-laced, anti-PC charms to bear, Shaft the character is rather apolitical and indifferent to the world around him. Granted, the first Shaft was done just in the aftermath of race riots making Shaft’s specific, contextual heroism relatively easy to invoke.
In the era of superheroes (which Jackson, ironically, helped realize), Shaft, one of the few distinct heroes of New York like Spider-Man, also appears groundless being situated in a remarkably bland metropolis that appears wholly filmed on a soundstage. Even when Story alludes to a post-911 anti-Muslim hysteria the film treats this serious issue as a passing plot point. The very political essence of Shaft is sacrificed for a highly generic badass who quips, shoots, and gives himself compliments with every opportunity.
Not that Story does not make some valiant efforts to try to stand out with Shaft shamelessly teasing JJ’s bourgeoisie mannerisms and torturing his estranged ex-lover Regina Hall with an unwelcome reunion. But even these efforts come off as too calculated to enliven an otherwise staid story. Overall, this is a competent follow-up to the Singleton film but with anti-heroes and neo-fascist villains all the rage, this film might have been wiser to be less safe and stylistically embrace its subject with real gusto.
In the end, the film feels like a Jackson film that has only very minor changes from the many action-hero personas he has inhabited over several decades. The young cast also appears to be simply sleepwalking through dialogue and action set pieces. Shaft though is never boring and from the perspective of nostalgia, some people might appreciate this hip-hop interpretation of the Shaft mythos.
Overall, the average moviegoer will strain to remember any memorable dialogue or imagery from this satisfactory and good but far from great attempt to continue the Shaft story into the new century. Though in the current climate with other old icons like Superfly, Godzilla, and Chucky are having trouble staying relevant, Shaft, at least, is not alone in failing to revive past glory and becoming instead an outdated marketing ploy instead of a living, breathing character with genuine heft and power.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★