I can see why, divorced from all context, you would want to make a comedic buddy-cop version of Shaft. For one, the role now more or less belongs to Samuel L. Jackson, and no one ever went hungry giving Jackson a motherfucker-spiked action script. There’s name recognition of some kind, although at this point the John Shaft character is more or less a shortcut to depicting the entire blaxploitation genre in the same way that a burger with a bar through it represents “no eating on the premises.” It’s about as cheap as you can make a franchise these days, really; Shaft will never go to outer space or fight a robot. But that does beg the question: what DO you do with Shaft in 2019? What’s left for a badass black detective in a leather duster and a turtleneck to do in New York, where street crime has more or less been replaced with white collar crime and frozen yogurt?
What the filmmakers behind this latest iteration of Shaft have settled upon is frankly not the greatest idea, but the game is rigged against them. John Shaft was a man out of time in 2000 when they first rebooted the franchise; he’s an antique now, a thoroughly outdated model of just about anything you can imagine. Ironically, bringing John Shaft in 2019 requires making something that plays like a foul-mouthed Fox sitcom pilot from the late ’90s, a clunky fish-out-of-water comedy that trades not only on simplistic ideas of masculinity and Blackness (though I’m very ill-equipped to discuss this last point, so that’s about the last you’ll hear of it from me) but also on simplistic ideas of what an action movie could even be. Shaft smells musty directly out of the package, and an hour and 40 minutes at room temperature does it no favours.
John JJ Shaft (Jessie Usher) never really knew his father, the legendary private dick John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson). He was out of his life was JJ was a baby, leaving his mother (Regina Hall) to raise him. She did well enough — JJ has become a cyber security expert at the FBI, preferring the stability of the desk job to the danger of the field. When his childhood best friend Karim (Avan Jogia) is found dead of an overdose on a Harlem street, JJ has his doubts. A veteran, Karim had recently gotten clean and joined up with a non-profit dedicated to helping vets with addiction issues. Limited by the requirements of his job and his hard-ass boss (Titus Welliver) who has forbidden him from working the case, JJ calls upon the only man who can truly help: his estranged father.
Most of Shaft is predicated on the idea that John Shaft is a man’s man: golf trousers, scotch, ass slaps, not knowing how to use computers, not eating vegetables, and so on. On the flipside, JJ is a “feminized” millennial who wears skinny jeans, drinks coconut water and feels conflicted about his desire to tap the ass of his best friend (Alexandra Shipp). All of the conflict and the humour in Shaft is based around this premise. There are maybe a dozen jokes that aren’t directly about Shaft Sr. and his disgust at one of his son’s “pussified” traits, be it not carrying a gun, working for the Man or not wearing 70-pound leather coats in the middle of the summer. Had the filmmakers focused, perhaps, on a back-and-forth between the protagonists that argued that the answer lies somewhere in the middle (not the most exciting thesis, I’ll admit, but we’re talking about a Shaft movie here, not a Trump-era non-fiction bestseller), you might have been able to build an interesting rapport between the two leads.
Alas, everyone making Shaft is firmly on Shaft the Elder’s side, making it perhaps the most bald-faced piece of dad-sympathizing propaganda this side of Tim Allen’s entire oeuvre. Bizarrely conservative and proudly out-of-touch, Shaft beats every joke over the head several times before tossing it out the window to its death. The film also works overtime in order to shoehorn in all the things you come to expect from a Shaft movie, which in this particular case means throwing the badge like a ninja star and textual integration of lyrics from the Isaac Hayes song into the dialogue.
Firmly mired in the mid-’90s tradition of foul-mouthed action movies, Shaft nevertheless barely has the budget to cover more than a few action scenes, meaning instead that it’ll spend its time on setpieces that feature JJ having a capoeira dance-off in a club and vomiting on some women, or innumerable sequences of JJ “hacking into the mainframe” with lightning-fast speed speed. Many will argue that the worst thing about Shaft is that its jokes trade mainly in being homophobic, Islamophobic, racist and misogynistic but, to top it all off, they’re lazy and embarassing as well. I guess if you’re making hateful, shitty comedy, you may as well look like you’re trying.
With muddy, confused and choppy action scenes, Shaft also bungles the action part of its action-comedy moniker. (I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Tim Story, the director behind the Taxi remake with Jimmy Fallon and the Think Like a Man duology, doesn’t have the sharpest action skills —but then again, he’s made many action movies.) It picks up ever so slightly when Richard Roundtree shows up as the senior-most Shaft (who has been retconned since the 2000 John Singleton movie and is now Jackson’s character’s father, rather than his uncle) and tips the scales ever-so-slightly towards the film being more about grumpy old men on a mission, but by that time, you’ll have sat through so many fucking jokes about WiFi and the wimpification of R&B (?!) that it’ll be too late. ■
Shaft opens in theatres on Friday, June 14. Watch the trailer here: