Bringing Shaft into 21st Century
The #metoo movement wouldnít stand a chance in John Shaftís world. This most badass private detective to ever don a leather duster gets a modern-day update in Tim Storyís revisit to the Shaft franchise that kicked off the blaxploitation movement back in the early í70s. If there is one thing weíve always known about the legendary locked-and-loaded character whose cool graced the big and small screen back in the Ď70s and again in 2000, it is that he never really moved forward with the times. His unbridled machismo and outmoded ideas of the roles women play in society have remained dangerously stagnant. But thatís also why we love him so much. After all, who canít have a fond affection for a character who believes it is his duty to please the booty?
Thatís the angle Story and screenwriters Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow take in this new film that oddly shares the exact same name as previous versions, yet acts as a half-sequel half-reboot to those earlier films. Shaft (2019) brings the franchise into the 21st century by spanning three generations of the Shaft family and leans heavily into the self-aware notion that the world we now live in is much different from the one where the franchise began. In addition, Story injects much more heart and humor into this version. As a result, Shaft (2019) is a much better film than those earlier ones.
It opens with a flashback to 1989 Harlem where we see John Shaft II (Samuel L. Jackson) involved in a violent shootout. Once the bad guys are quickly dispatched, wife Maya (Regina Hall), having reached her breaking point with violence that surrounds their lives, disappears with their infant son, John Jr., a.k.a. J.J.
We then pick up the story in modern day as J.J. (Jessie T. Usher) is now a strait-laced, by-the-book MIT graduate working for the FBI as a data analyst. At first glance, J.J. isnít much of a chip off the old block. In fact, heís a mirror opposite of his pop: clean-cut, well-mannered, and always dressed in plaid shirts and a tie. When tragedy strikes one of J.J.ís friends, he knows he must reluctantly enlist the help of his street-wise father.
What follows is an overly-complicated action/mystery plot that sees the father/son team become entangled with a bunch of bad people doing bad things. The details of it all donít matter and neither does the fact that they burn a lot of screen time trying to explain what is happening. We didnít come here for the plot. We came for John Shaft and all that that implies. And boy, does Jackson deliver. ("You're the one being misogynistic, I never even mentioned her gender! I'm an equal-opportunity ass-whooper!") Heís certainly not as nimble and fleet-of-foot as he once was, but thereís J.J. and his newly discovered FBI training for that. Together, the two plow their way through baddies like a rake through Jheri Curl on the way to discovering who is behind the death of J.J.ís friend.
The filmís hook is how Story and team deliver a Shaft that blends old with new. Well, that and its ace in the hole: Jackson. Most of the filmís humor and nearly all of its enjoyment comes from the commentary on generational differences as both J.J. and his father learn that they each have something to teach the other. And of course we get a full pedal-to-metal Jackson and a heavy dose of the obligatory elements of the filmís blaxploitation roots: things like fast cars, machine guns, cursing, babes, booze, and drugs.
Just as things begin to dip into Scooby-Doo territory, in steps the Godfather of cool himself, Richard Roundtree who starred in the original Ď70s originals and who riffs on how good he still looks.
Is Shaft a great film? No, it isnít. But we didnít expect that now, did we? This is pure popcorn summer action fun, and to expect more than that is placing far too much confidence in the genre. Shaft is an entertaining father/son story that comes at us just in time for Fatherís Day. Nearly every frame is stuffed with plenty for everyone to like, especially action lovers, Jackson fans, lovers of the originals, and those who appreciate a more humorous take on the franchise.
Shaft offers a lot of fun for the entire family. But check that! Donít take the kids or anyone with heightened sensitivity to non-p.c. shenanigans, for the film is well deserving of its ďRĒ rating.
(Released by New Line Cinema and rated ďRĒ for pervasive language, violence, sexual content, some drug material and brief nudity.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.