Director: Tim Story
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie Usher, Richard Roundtree, Regina Hall
Watch Shaft (2019) online in the UK: Netflix UK
Perhaps the definitive blaxploitation movie, 1971’s Shaft is one of the most enduring and well-known entries in the genre – not just because Richard Roundtree’s detective was a landmark example of a black lead role in a studio picture, but because it came with an iconic soundtrack to boot, with a timeless theme courtesy of Isaac Hayes. While you might find yourself singing Shaft in 2019, though, reconciling the character, tone, themes and import of the almost-half-a-century-old film with modern society is another matter entirely. And so we have the new film Shaft, half-sequel, half-reboot and with an identity that feels as conflicted as it sounds.
A follow-up to John Singleton’s 2001 Shaft, which saw Samuel L. Jackson take on the mantle of his uncle’s detective work, our protagonist is now John Shaft Jr. (“JJ”). Played by Jessie Usher (Independence Day: Resurgence), he’s an FBI agent, but a computer expert rather than a field operative, and he’s been raised by his mother (Regina Hall) to be as unlike his absent father as possible. But when a friend of his, Karim, turns up dead, and his FBI badge is suspended, he seeks out his estranged dad for some help.
The result is essentially a buddy cop flick, with an inter-generational culture clash to provide the fun. But by relegating Shaft to the butt of a joke, Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow’s script shortchanges both the character’s legacy and the audience; Shaft becomes just like every other grumpy old man we’ve seen before, who doesn’t understand gender, computers or toxic masculinity. And so we’re given a cycle of repetitive set pieces that settles into an underwhelming rhythm: Shaft says something politically incorrect, Shaft Jr. reprimands him, and then someone gets shot. Shoot, cut, repeat.
Occasionally, the exchanges are vaguely amusing, thanks to Samuel L. Jackson’s delivery, while Usher is a likeable example of a man who is progressive, respectful of women and open about his feelings. But as the duo begin to find a groove, and as Shaft’s behaviour is laughed off as being not-that-bad-really (and perhaps even beneficial for JJ learning how to “be a man”), Shaft’s character becomes more and more generic, and the name the film trades in becomes less and less valuable. It’s not just JJ who’s estranged from his roots, and that disjunct is never quite resolved in a way that’s satisfying or particularly deep; even Regina Hall is wasted in the role of JJ’s mother and Shaft’s former flame.
There’s fun in Richard Roundtree making a cameo appearance that gives us a trio of gun-toting, fist-throwing rogues in action, but despite its entertaining climactic showdown, this movie’s historical roots are primarily in Michael Bay’s Bad Boys. Its plot is no more memorable, with JJ’s action credentials suddenly ramped up for mere convenience and other developments equally illogical. With Netflix in play – it distributed the movie online two weeks after its US theatrical debut – a further film may well end up greenlit, but this remake-quel feels less like the revival of a franchise and more like an excuse to make outdated jokes and have it both ways.
Shaft is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.