Directed by Tim Story.
Starring Jessie T. Usher, Samuel L. Jackson, Richard Roundtree, Alexandra Shipp, Regina Hall, Matt Lauria, Avan Jogia, Lauren Vélez, Method Man, Almeera Jiwa, Ian Casselberry, Aaron Dominguez, and Isaach De Bankolé.
John Shaft Jr., 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.
Haven’t seen any of the original Shaft films from the 70s or the rebooted continuation from the early 2000s? Fear not, as a pre-screening video to this latest attempted revival of the franchise (this is now the third film in the saga simply titled Shaft) saw the multi-generational family catch us up, specifically Samuel L. Jackson who sums it up better than anyone else ever could; original Shaft (a returning Richard Roundtree) kicks ass, his son John Shaft II (Samuel L. Jackson) kicks ass. I’m assuming this quick snippet won’t play before every screening, but it’s a good rule of thumb if you’re on the fence for seeing this based on limited prior knowledge.
But what about John Shaft Jr. (Jesse T. Usher)? The prologue to this latest installment begins all the way back to the 90s where John Shaft II is seemingly sticking to one woman, a girlfriend played by Regina Hall. As par for the course with the life of the private detective, the pair succumb to gunfire while enjoying the night out, not only endangering their own lives but their toddler, prompting a separation. Shaft doesn’t want to give his black James Bond lifestyle up, so the couple parts ways with the only father-son interaction being birthday gifts mailed out yearly (and as you can expect some of the presents are ill-advised and inappropriate).
Flash forward to the present day and JJ has not exactly grown up to inhabit the traits of his father. Rather than functioning as a macho lady’s man, JJ is a data analyst for the FBI that is shy around women, who eventually decides to reconnect and enlist the help of his father following the suspicious death of his best friend which is filed as a drug overdose despite evidence stating the contrary. What ensues is nothing more than a Tim Story-directed comedy (most people might know him for helming numerous films starring Kevin Hart including the Ride Along series, which for some unholy reason will be getting a third entry).
It’s a given that Shaft the character is a product of a bygone era; he’s misogynistic, homophobic (there’s a terribly unfunny running joke where various characters mock the name “Brothers Watching Brothers” misinterpreting it as a homosexual group instead of the war veterans support group it is), insensitive, and has no handle on the modern world socially or technologically. Meanwhile, his millennial son is the antithesis to this bad boy persona, doing everything from dressing and talking “white” to eating healthy to respecting women to being anti-gun and generally having no spine when it comes to physical altercations. They are a mismatched pair solving a fairly generic case (there comes a point where everyone in the audience will have it figured out only for the characters to make the wrong move, which is actually a staple for Tim Story investigative mysteries).
The problem is that what once was semi-thoughtful blaxploitation pictures have now devolved into a series of over-the-top mean-spirited crude gags. Running with the black James Bond analogy (something Shaft makes himself), there’s at least charm and grace in witnessing Bond seduce a woman or even come to her rescue. Obviously, these are outdated and antiquated concepts for 2019, but I can still watch a James Bond film without feeling gross about it. Shaft contains such lowbrow humor that the titular character is introduced with certain juices all over his face… it’s disgusting, lazy, and the opposite of funny. Jesse T. Usher may elicit repulsed reactions that we can relate to, but it doesn’t matter because the movie slowly turns him into a modern-day version of his father. Aggressively go after women, guns are awesome, present yourself with toxic humanity; that seems to be the message here.
There are hints that the movie might do something subversive, as JJ’s doctor love interest (Alexandra Shipp) explains early on that she carries a gun for protection, going against the anti-gun ways of her friend. Essentially, one spends the whole movie thinking maybe a woman might get to join the action in this franchise. Nope; when danger arrives the movie now decides to make a joke about people packing heat that don’t know how to properly wield firearms, immediately followed by JJ dispatching of the thugs. And then the movie kicks into the damsel in distress mode, you know, like every Shaft movie.
The humor in Shaft is repellent and will turn many people away; younger generations don’t want to take a chance on a revitalized franchise that is only going to make fun of millennials for two hours. The moments where Shaft updates his ways of thinking are few and far between, and also don’t really mean anything. By the end of the movie, the only thing he still thinks about is sex. Meanwhile, the son has become nearly everything he once despised (it’s a moot point showcasing a character skilled with guns that hates them). Women are objects, which was to be expected but not at this level of degradation. The action also falls flat, with a climactic shootout that is nothing more than people hiding behind pillars and firing their guns. Nevertheless, Samuel L. Jackson and Jesse T Usher have winning chemistry that elicits a few laughs even if you do feel bad about chuckling seconds later.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com