After remaining stubbornly dormant for nearly 20 years after Samuel L. Jackson slipped on the black turtle neck, I don’t think anyone was really expecting his, or any other version of Shaft to appear back on our screens. Enter Netflix, notorious streaming giant and chief purveyor of funding movies no one has particularly asked for who swooped in long after the horse had bolted and gave us another crack at the Shaft legend.
Essentially an action comedy that’s somehow is still a sequel to John Singleton’s entertaining attempt to revive the character back in 2000, this version of Shaft was brought to us by Tim Story, the man whose filmography zigzags between Barbershop, the Jessica Alba Fantastic Four movies and the Kevin Hart scream-a-thons that make up the Ride Along movies. On paper, Story seemed like a solid choice, but even if he turned in a predictably slick product, is there still room for the man known as John Shaft in the era of accountability and responsibility?
In 1989, an awkwardly digitally de-aged John Shaft narrowly survives an assassination attempt at the hands of goons employed by drug lord Pierro “Gordito” Carrera. Nothing particularly out of the ordinary there, but sharing the experience is his wife Maya and his baby son JJ who is buckled in the back seat and this near death experience is all the excuse Maya needs to take her baby and leave.
Fast forward to the present day and JJ has matured into young man who respects women, hates guns and has managed to become a rookie FBI analyst of sizable talent, but when a childhood friend of his is found dead of a suspicious heroin overdose, JJ goes above and beyond his job parameters in order to get to the bottom of things. This involves a trip to Harlem, his father’s stomping ground; and inevitably the two meet after JJ unsuccessfully gets his ass whupped while trying to roust a drug den for info. The young FBI agent is as horrified by his estranged father’s approach to interrogation (essentially incredibly stylish aggravated assault) as the senior Shaft is that his son is, his eyes, a painfully woke nerd and the two begrudgingly work together in order to crack the case.
Horrified by his father’s methods when it comes to, well… absolutely everything (at one point Shaft actually demands $100 from a brutalised gangbanger to pay for the dry cleaning for the wear and tear his dapper threads obtained by chasing the perp down), JJ desperately tries to keep his sort-of reconciliation with his father from his mother while Shaft takes it upon himself to mercilessly heap old school lessons of manliness onto his consistently shocked spawn. Can this bickering odd couple close the case before they kill each other?
While the original Shaft flicks where highly influential blaxploitation movies that put Richard Roundtree’s defiantly black P.I. front and centre while squaring up to “the man” on the mean streets of Harlem and the 2000 reboot was a slick cop thriller with a dynamic up and coming cast, this newest incarnation of the Shaft legend weirdly decides to mostly leave the racial stuff off the table and instead remodel the franchise into a broad action comedy that pits Samuel L. Jackson’s womanising, violent, foul-mouthed, old school, head-cracker with his his far more sensitive son. It’s admittedly a strange leap to turn such an iconic character who once was declared the black James Bond (“If that motherfucker was real he’d wish he was me.”) into part of a shouty double act that has all the social impact of the Drew Barrymore Charlie’s Angels movies, but under the eye of Tim Story, the movie is a fun, but derivative goof out.
The main reason the movie holds together at all is down to the efforts of Samuel L. Jackson who delivers quite possibly the most Samuel L. Jackson performance he’s ever delivered. If it wasn’t for the man’s textbook shouty tones, the fact that the movie treats the character’s comically out-dated views of pretty much as a positive thing would make the film somewhat of a distasteful watch – but even when Shaft senior is stunned that his son has a issue with him wanting to beat up a bat wielding woman or casually stating misogynist goop like “It’s your duty to please that booty” like it’s one of the forgotten ten commandments, Jackson somehow scrapes things by.
Also helping is a decent straight-man role for Jessie T. Usher (A-Train from The Boys) whose “Oh Damn!” laced performance; but while the end of the film expects us to believe both men’s outlook on life has been tempered by exposure to the others, it doesn’t really seem that Jackson’s Shaft has learned a fucking thing. Still, there isn’t much that can beat Jackson trying to out-yell an on form Regina Hall and it’s still genuinely nice to see them wheel out Roundtree one more time as the original Shaft who has now been ret-conned from being Shaft II’s uncle to his full fledged daddy.
Plugging the various plot holes, the jokes come as thick and fast as the copious bullets (an in-joke that Shaft is tired of being confused with Lawrence Fishburne is a banger) but it isn’t quite enough to distract you from the fact that the actual plot as as undercooked as raw meat and the cordite scorched climax literally seems to happen because the filmmakers suddenly realised that they had to wrap things up at some point.
Ultimately this is nothing more than a fun but throwaway comedy that’s taken its franchise into kind of a weird place and I’m not sure the film’s message holds up when you consider that the word pussy is uttered more times than in any other recent movie I can recall.
Still, it looks good and fucks shit up, so I guess that’s the bare minimum you need to craft a modern day Shaft movie; its just a shame a lot of the character’s original social cues have been sacrificed in favour of its lead bellowing motherfucker as much as he can for comedic effect.