This is not your father’s Shaft. Well, no, that’s not quite right. This totally is your father’s Shaft. It’s also your Shaft and a younger Shaft thrown in for good measure (your relationship to them varies based upon your age). This is then three Shafts. Maybe that’s why it’s also the third movie in a single franchise with a single continuity that is called, quite simply, “Shaft.”
Let me explain – first, Richard Roundtree was John Shaft and he starred in three big screen Shaft movies as John Shaft, the first titled “Shaft,” and a TV series. Then, in 2000, Samuel L. Jackson played John Shaft in “Shaft,” a film which also featured Roundtree’s Shaft. Now, here in 2019, Jessie T. Usher is playing John Shaft in a new “Shaft,” with both Jackson and Roundtree reprising their roles. The specifics of why are irrelevant for now, but Usher’s character is John Shaft, Junior, or JJ; while Jackson is John Shaft, and Roundtree is John Shaft, Sr.
The biggest disappointment in the film is that Roundtree is given short, with much of the tale centering on the father-son dynamic between Usher and Jackson’s characters. The former of these two is a young man who was abandoned by his father as a baby and raised by his mother, Maya(Regina Hall). Naturally though, father and son reunite and JJ gets to learn all his father’s horrible ways.
I spent a lot of time considering this next bit so stay with me on it – John Shaft is a terrible person. Sure, he may care for his son, but this is not a good human being. He’s a misogynist, has a foul mouth, and just is an all-around bad guy. With a script from Kenya Barris & Alex Barnow and directed by Tim Story, this “Shaft,” despite whatever the other ones may have been, is an action comedy, heavy on the comedy, and Jackson’s character is played almost entirely for laughs.
So—and this is the bit where I did the thinking—is that okay? The movie itself, which kind of argues against typical “millennial” silliness would say that it is, but is it? Is it okay to laugh at John Shaft’s antics and terrible treatment of those around him, particularly women? Or, put another way, giving “Shaft” a positive review means saying that Shaft is funny, but does that mean approving him?
Looking at the second of those questions – I don’t think it does. I think that, in fiction, we can laugh at bad people doing bad things and, at the same time, recognize that these are not role models. No, neither John Shaft nor Jon Shaft, Sr., is a role model. They may help people, they may love family, but they are not role models. JJ, however, just might be. Therefore, I am pro “Shaft” and anti-two-thirds of the Shafts.
All that said, Story not only hits the humor wonderfully, but the action sequences are a delight as well. “Shaft” is over the top and loud and when that classic music starts playing it packs all the punch of the James Bond theme – you just know something good is going to happen.
The plot is somewhat ethereal, but Usher and Jackson have a tremendous dynamic that is well leveraged as Shaft helps his son figure out what happened to the boy’s best friend (played by Avan Jogia). It all somehow ties into why Maya left the city with JJ all those years ago and helps JJ impress the woman he’s had a crush on for years, Sasha (Alexandra Shipp).
As summer popcorn flicks go, 2019’s “Shaft” is a complete delight. It is a foul-mouthed swear-fest festooned with bad people doing illegal things, whether they’re the good guys or the evil. It offers just the barest amount of plot to hold onto; has great supporting players like Matt Lauria, Luna Lauren Vélez, and Titus Welliver; and keeps the audience rolling in the aisles.
My biggest hope is that I don’t have to wait another 19 years to see these folks back up on the big screen. “Shaft” deserves to be a mammoth success. It may be entirely different than the vision first put on screen in the early 1970s, but it is a sight to behold.
photo credit: Warner Bros.