Shaft is a bland requel that sacrifices the qualities that make this franchise relevant, in order to crack tired jokes about millennials instead.
Director Tim Story's confusingly-titled Shaft (it's a revival-sequel to the 1971 and 2000 films, not a remake) is a bit like Austin Powers - that is, if that movie had aspired to convince you that Austin was a little retrograde, yes, but still a genuine badass and the embodiment of true masculinity. It plays out closer to a sitcom than an update of the Blaxploitation franchise in that regard, but that's only to be expected, seeing as it was written by The Goldbergs writer-producer Alex Barnow and Black-ish creator Kenya Barris. The problem isn't necessarily that the movie wants to be funny; it's that it seems obtuse to how out of touch and regressive it is, much like the older generations of John Shafts here. Shaft is a bland requel that sacrifices the qualities that make this franchise relevant, in order to crack tired jokes about millennials instead.
John Shaft Jr. aka. "JJ" (Jessie Usher) is still a newly-minted cybersecurity expert for the FBI when his childhood friend - a war veteran named Karin Hassan (Avan Jogia) - turns up dead, seemingly from a drug overdose. JJ quickly deduces that there's more to Karin's death than meets the eye, and reluctantly turns to his long-absent father, private investigator John Shaft II (Samuel L. Jackson), for assistance. As worlds apart as the two men are, JJ comes to accept that he needs his dad to help guide him through Harlem's underbelly, discover what really happened to his friend, and possibly expose an even larger conspiracy along the way. But in order to do that, they may need a hand from another famous John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) altogether.
From the very first montage (which shows JJ growing up and receiving "manly" gifts from his father, while Shaft II battles crooks in Harlem), it's obvious what's going to happen when Shaft's leads meet up. Sure enough, the pair make for an odd couple where the humor comes from JJ being an oversensitive foil to his almost comically, yet effectively, macho dad. It's the same shtick that Story used in most of his previous movies, be it the Ride Along series, his Fantastic Four films, or even his 2004 action-comedy Taxi. The bit comes off feeling all the more worn-out here because Shaft has little interest in using its comedy to explore where JJ and his father's generational differences come from, or how their upbringings have shaped the way they feel about their heritage as black men in America (a la what Black-ish tries to examine). Instead, it mostly wants to poke fun at modern ways of living, make older moviegoers feel comfortable about their unintentional queerphobia, and suggest that millennial men need to collectively man-up.
But that's just it; the 1971 and 2000 Shaft movies were about their namesakes fighting for the underprivileged and going up against the institutions that help maintain the racist status quo in the U.S. By comparison, the 2019 Shaft's idea of sticking it to the man is criticizing the FBI for trying to be PC, or making fun of an organization meant to help troubled veterans because its name "sounds gay". In an equally bad move, the film also carries over the misogyny of '70s Blaxploitation by portraying women as being either overdemanding shrews - in the case of JJ's mom, Maya Babanikos (Regina Hall) - or supposedly forward-thinking people who secretly want the men in their lives to be tough guys, a la JJ's romantic interest Sasha Arias (Alexandra Shipp). The latest Shaft is more casual about its sexism, but that only makes it worse in some ways.
That's not to say the film is without its redeeming qualities. Usher has pretty decent comedic timing, while Jackson (as usual) possesses enough charisma to make Shaft II almost charming in the way he stubbornly refuses to evolve with the times. The mystery at the heart of the story here is also sturdy in its design and manages to avoid being overly convoluted or distracting from the character drama. Elsewhere, Story remains a competent architect behind the camera and does a respectable job of staging the movie's various shoot-outs, fist-fights, and more explicitly comedic moments alike. Shaft (2019) lacks the visual grit of the 1971 and 2000 installments, but Story and his longtime DP Larry Blanford photograph the proceedings in a flavorless, yet otherwise clean and satisfactory fashion.
What's frustrating is that, on paper, a Shaft revival seems like an okay idea. In a time when pop genre movies are increasingly willing to tackle timely issues like police brutality and bureaucratic corruption, one would expect a modern Shaft sequel to feel like a natural reflection of the zeitgeist. Instead, this new film loses track of what made the franchise culturally significant to begin with, in favor of being a middling action-comedy that's more invested in complaining about kids these days than systematic oppression in the larger world. Those who've enjoyed Story's previous films might get some decent laughs out of this one, but everyone else is probably better off pretending that John Shaft II and Shaft Sr. never came out of retirement in the first place.
Shaft is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 111 minutes long and is rated R for pervasive violence, sexual content, some drug material and brief nudity.
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- Shaft (2019) release date: Jun 14, 2019