'Shaft': Film Review

Half kick-ass, half sitcom.
6/14/2019

Samuel L. Jackson reprises the iconic role for a second time in Tim Story's reboot, which finds the legendary cop teaming with his son to solve a murder.

Have we reached the point where Shaft has devolved from an icon to a sitcom? The question gurgles as a subcurrent throughout the latest big-screen outing for the iconic 1970s bad-ass cop-turned-enforcer, one that jocularly attempts to have it both ways as it simultaneously revels in the old man's uncensored talk, outdated social attitudes and maverick approach to justice while forcing him to confront modern mores — especially where women are concerned.

To take the edge off this conflict, a fresh set of filmmakers make light of the generational divide as much as possible. It's all terribly contrived but, thanks to Samuel L. Jackson, this reboot of a reboot manages to resurrect stray moments of '70s-era, go-it-alone impudence and irreverence that still carry a certain appeal.

There have now been five Shaft movies spread over nearly a half-century, in addition to a TV series, and the honest truth is that none of them has been all that good as a film. Not only that, but the fixation on “the private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks” doesn't exactly sync up with the political climate of the times. Still, the lure of bringing back the New York City streets lawman has proven irresistible, and this time it's dynastic, with three — count 'em — three enforcers from different Shaftian generations hitting the streets to dispense justice with brutally effective, if preposterous, dispatch.

The challenge taken on by prolific television writers Kenya Barris (Black-ish) and Alex Barnow (The Goldbergs, Family Guy) was to create a 50/50 balance between old and new social attitudes. This culturally safe approach allows the old characters to let fly with the barbed and often funny trash talk that has always flowed from the mouths of the maverick tough-guy Shafts played by Richard Roundtree in the original 1971 hit, two decreasingly palatable sequels and a short-lived TV show (removing dirty words from his vocabulary was fatal) and by Jackson in John Singleton's decently received feature resurrection in 2000. But it also assures that preppy MIT grad John Jr., or JJ (Jessie T. Usher), who works for the FBI, is always around to reprimand the old guys for their uncouth, incorrect ways.

Automatic “The Odd Couple”-type dialogue stems from this culture clash, which applies down the line to their relations with women (rough vs. considerate) and law enforcement (street smarts vs. protocol). This dichotomy is played out in all possible directions, personal and professional, which allows the filmmakers to have it both ways, milking the vulgarity, nudity and R-rated violence as required but allowing the “enlightened” modern views of the younger generation to prevail and suggest lessons learned by the crusty old guys.

But given that the youngest Shaft actually has a Lord of the Rings poster on his bedroom wall, can there be any surprise that the older characters' R-rated attitudes feed the film's most entertaining moments? Still, young JJ hasn't enjoyed the benefit of having a renegade lawman around the house; in fact, they only meet when drawn together on a likely murder case that may involve some suspicious doings at a New York mosque as well as an altruistic charity called Brothers Helping Brothers.

JJ's mother Maya (Regina Hall, wonderful) was just one of Shaft's many women back in the day and has had no contact with him through the years, so the news that her son has finally met his father is not exactly welcome. Nor does JJ, despite his law enforcement career, dig his dad's Wild West style of justice. “I'm not a gun guy,” the lad informs his stupefied father, just one trait old Shaft will have to deal with during their trial-by-fire getting-to-know-you rites.

The screenwriters' hit-the-nail-on-the-head manner of plot and character revelation could scarcely be more obvious, although sometimes the extreme differences can't help but summon up some laughs. “Your mama did one helluva job turning you into a bona fide white boy,” the older man exclaims, while also noting that his son drinks decaf. When old pop employs a certain word that is now verboten (and that was probably uttered more than any other word in every previous Shaft film), JJ exclaims, “Don't use the n-word.”

And so it goes, as the two guys get to know each other in the course of trying to solve a distinctly uncompelling mystery that merely serves as a means of forcing these two together until they like and appreciate one another, as their hard-ass...errr, hard-line attitudes soften along the way. The finale, a good-guys vs. bad-guys fight near the top of a very tall high-rise, is particularly risible.

Still, how strenuously can one complain when in the presence of Jackson reciting lines like, “It's your duty to please that booty” and “I know way more about this city than all this GPS shit.” To listen to the actor doing street talk is akin to reveling in Olivier reciting Shakespeare — in other words, it's one of the great pleasures of the language. Edit the film down to his dialogue and you have a wonderful greatest hits collection.

A point of interest is that Jackson is 70 years old, even if he looks perhaps 10 years younger, while Roundtree, fun to watch playing the oldest of the trio, who enters the scene in the final third, is 76; Usher, as the youngest iteration of Shaft, is just 27.

To be sure, the late Isaac Hayes' immortal “Shaft” theme song is abundantly employed, and matters are left open-ended in a way that invites yet another sequel if warranted.

Production companies: New Line Cinema, Davis Entertainment
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie T. Usher, Regina Hall, Richard 
Roundtree, Alexandra Shipp, Matt Lauria, Titus Welliver, Cliff 'Method Man' Smith, Isaach de Bankole, Avan Jogia, Luna Lauren Velez
Director: Tim Story
Screenwriters: Kenya Barris, Alex Barnow, based on the character John 
Shaft from the novel by Ernest Tidyman
Producer: John Davis
Executive producers: Richard Brenner, Josh Mack, Marc S. Fischer, Tim 
Story, Ira Napoliello, Keyna Barris
Director of photography: Larry Blanford
Production designer: Wynn Thomas
Costume designer: Olivia Miles
Editor: Peter S. Elliot
Music: Christopher Lennertz
Casting: Victoria Thomas

Rated R, 111 minutes