Should I Watch..? 'Shaft' (2019)
What's the big deal?
Shaft is an action comedy film released in 2019 and is a loose continuation of the Shaft film series that began back in 1971. It is a direct sequel to the 2000 film version of Shaft and stars Samuel L Jackson as John Shaft II, the son of the original John Shaft, who gets himself involved in a violent drug-smuggling operation in Harlem via his straight-laced and estranged son, JJ Shaft. The film also stars Jessie Usher, Alexandra Shipp, Regina Hall, Titus Welliver and Richard Roundtree. Directed by Tim Story, the film is more comedic in tone than previous films and delivers more action as well as examining Shaft's place in today's society. The film received a largely negative reaction from critics and at the time of writing, had only earned $20.3 million in the US - less than its production budget. Such failure means that another Shaft is unlikely to appear any time soon.
What's it about?
In 1989, John Shaft narrowly survives an assassination attempt by goons loyal to local drugs baron Pierro "Gordito" Carrera together with his wife Maya and his infant son JJ. Concerned that Shaft's influence and lifestyle might not be that great for raising the boy, Maya leaves Shaft and takes JJ with her. Fast forward to the present day and JJ has grown up ostracised from his father, sailing through his graduation from MIT and working as a data analyst for the FBI with little trace of his father's trademark personality.
After the death of a friend of his through an apparent overdose, JJ begins to smell a rat after believing him to have been murdered. Sharing the toxicology report with his doctor friend and obvious crush Sasha, she confirms that something isn't right and JJ decides to investigate himself. However, he is not exactly streetwise and after getting violently removed from a drug dealer's den, JJ decides to contact the only man he knows who can help him - his dad, John Shaft...
Trailer (contains adult material)
Samuel L Jackson
John Shaft II
John "JJ" Shaft Jr
Major Gary Cutworth
Special Agent Vietti
Cliff "Method Man" Smith
Isaach de Bankolé
Pierro 'Gordito' Carrera
Kenya Barris & Alex Barnow*
Release Date (UK)
28th June, 2019
Action, Comedy, Crime
What's to like?
As someone who has watched all three films sharing this hallowed name, Shaft is a very different proposition from what has gone before it. Despite being still set in the seedier parts of Harlem, this film is much more of a buddy-cop action comedy instead of the racially-charged political thrillers that the previous films were. Surprisingly, it works rather well - Jackson can do this kind of films until the cows come home and his unique charisma can hold the attention in any film. Alongside Usher (whose movie career up to this point has mainly consisted of bit parts), there is some decent inter-generational banter and the film isn't afraid to have a laugh at itself, poking fun at the very character of Shaft as well as Usher's Millennial bookworm.
I also enjoyed the motor-mouthed performance of Hall as Shaft's long-suffering ex-wife, desperate to stop her boy becoming too much like his old man. In truth, this film is unlikely to win over any new fans (and certainly the appearance of original Shaft Roundtree will bemuse all but the oldest or savviest of viewers) but as a throwaway, action comedy, the film isn't too bad. It isn't as funny as something like The Hitman's Bodyguard which benefited from having Ryan Reynolds playing himself alongside Jackson. But it's perfectly serviceable for what it is - it doesn't take itself too seriously and neither should you.
- The film provides a ret-con by stating that Jackson's character is the son of the original John Shaft, not the nephew as stated in the 2000 film. This would also make JJ Shaft the grandson of John Shaft. However, there is only a six year age gap between Jackson and Roundtree.
- Despite being set almost exclusively in Harlem, the film was actually shot in the Midtown area of Atlanta in Georgia.
- While it was released theatrically in the US, the film's international release was handled by Netflix. This explains the movie's fairly poor theatrical earnings.
- The film is actually the fifth instalment of the Shaft series as the original had two sequels - Shaft's Big Score! in 1972 and Shaft In Africa the following year. There was also a short-lived TV series that lasted for one season.
What's not to like?
The more I think, the more issues I think of. Usher is a gifted performer but he doesn't feel right in the role and his relationship with Shipp's nurse is handled so badly by the film that I thought I was watching two children in pre-school. The film's nifty action sequences make up for the fact that the narrative is an awkward blend of crime solving, family drama and box-ticking cliche such as the racist language and outdated stereotypes depicted in the film. Instead of rightfully celebrating the character's heritage and impact on cinema, it feels more like an excuse to dress up in your father's clothes from the Seventies and poke fun at him.
To be honest, it's a waste of the licence. It reminded me in so many ways of the laboured reboot of Starsky & Hutch, an equally vapid picture that squandered the memory of the original while newer stars poked fun at how old fashioned everything is. Of course everything is old fashioned - Shaft was a genuinely ground-breaking picture when it thundered into theatres in 1971 but it remained a product of that time, defining the era instead of escaping it. The warning signs should have been there when Jackson first took on the Shaft role in 2000 where even he failed to breath life into the series and reignite the character's appeal properly. This film, which tries to push the character into an already crowded sub-genre, fails because this could have been any film with any characters. While it was obviously tempting to drag out the Shaft name one more time, it bears little relation to what meant before it and is Shaft in name only - much like the lead characters themselves.
Should I watch it?
It might have the swagger and the name but this isn't really Shaft. It's a fairly standard and very predictable action shooter that doesn't have much to say beyond mocking the hairy-chested original and the chest-waxing Millennial viewers it's undoubtedly made for. It feels as outdated and passe as leopard-print flairs and while it will amuse for a time, it won't remain in the memory for too long.
Great For: undemanding action fans, African American audiences (who deserve better), anyone who hasn't seen the original, the ignorant
Not So Great For: anyone who loved the first films, hard-nosed critics, TV censorship guys - who will have a job on their hands with this
What else should I watch?
For most people, there is only one Shaft - the Blaxploitation classic that changed the game for cinema in the US, presenting a hero who was black and proud and not afraid to get the job done his way. Along with the more indie release Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song the same name, these films presented characters dealing with themes of racism, cultural identity and crime in gritty urban neighbourhoods. Soon, this influence was appearing in other more mainstream films such as Live And Let Die and Jim Brown's character in Enter The Dragon. The trend was revived in the late Eighties and early Nineties by directors like Spike Lee and the late John Singleton, who would go on to direct his own Shaft with Jackson perfectly cast as the smoother-than-silk problem solver.
While the impact of Blaxploitation remains controversial (especially after the recent "Oscars So White" controversy), there are several films that are worth checking out. Super Fly is another controversial film due to its prolific drug use and depiction of African American characters but has a stunning soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield, much like the Marvin Gaye soundtrack for Trouble Man. And then you have the Queen of Blaxploitation, the legendary Pam Grier who helmed classics like Coffy and Foxy Brown before popping up again in Quentin Tarantino's homage to the genre, Jackie Brown.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox