John Shaft is a name that has rang in the streets for decades, but Shaft (2019) is forced to examine how the action icon's legacy holds up in some very changed times from whence it began. The result is a Shaft movie from director Tim Story that leans into the fact that times have changed, and attempts to change with them. Shaft (2019) doesn't take its own image or history too seriously, and thankfully delivers a lighthearted raunchy comedy instead of a stuffy, self-serious Blaxploitation detective story.
This new chapter begins in the 1980s, when John Shaft II (Samuel L. Jackson) is living in Harlem with his girl Maya (Regina Hall) and young son JJ. An attempt on Shaft's life and family pushes Maya to leave New York and head to California, where she raises JJ in safety, far away from his father's shadow. Of course fate's agenda always supersedes the plans of men and women, and this case is no different.
Having grown up and become a high-value FBI data analyst, JJ (Jessie T. Usher) is sucked into his own investigation when his childhood friend Karin is found dead. JJ and his other childhood friend Sasha (Alexandra Shipp) refuse to believe that Karin had fallen back into drug addiction as the police claim, and so they eventually must turn to a seasoned private eye to help the case move forward. That brings them right to the door of John Shaft.
JJ and Shaft quickly establish that there's a lot of unsolved history still between them, but the Shaft men manage to put differences aside in order to work the case. The deeper they get, though, the more it's clear there's a massive cover up at the heart of Karin's death. But it will take Shaft learning a thing or two from his son -- and JJ finally accepting the side of his father that's inside him -- to solve this case in full.
Shaft (2019) manages to capture the spirit of both the original 1971 film and the 2000 reboot that introduced Samuel L. Jackson to the role. As stated above, while director Tim Story (Barbershop, Ride Along) manages to honor the franchise legacy, he also does a crucial heel turn for franchise, effectively giving Shaft a soft reboot as a raunchy buddy-cop action-comedy rather than the more serious social-minded detective story John Singleton presented in 2000, or the low-budget action noir that Gordon Parks first launched in the '70s. It's a change that might not go over well with some longtime die-hard fans of the franchise, who want Shaft in its classic "purest" form, but it's also hard to ignore the fun and charm that Story injects into the franchise, arguably for the first time ever. The action in the film isn't anything to write home about, as Shaft (both old and young) manage to come through shootouts with suave ease, never once making you worry that it could go wrong. At this point, Shaft is more of a superhero than a hard-boiled street detective.
The change in tone and approach works largely thanks to the partnering of Samuel L. Jackson and Jessie Usher. Jackson is the one who keeps things grounded in the roots of the franchise, playing the same "bad muthaf*cka" version of Shaft that made him a worthy successor to Richard Roundtree. However, Jackson is a skilled enough performer to steer Shaft's steely cool into comedic territory, playing an aging curmudgeon who knows he's out of step with the new day and age, but couldn't care less. Half of Shaft (2019) serves as a vehicle for Jackson to make his "get off my lawn!" letter to millennials, which is much more enjoyable than, say, Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino.
Of course, Jackson's takedowns of post-millennial male culture wouldn't work if not for a foil that balance the stereotyping with a more nuanced reality; thankfully Jessie T. Usher walks that line well. Usher's "JJ" feels like a more "woke" and compassionate modern man who is suitably geeky and smart without being a nerd caricature -- a flailing comedic foil to Jackson's Shaft, who still manages a smooth transition into being his own confident action hero. If nothing else, Shaft accomplishes the goal of setting JJ up to carry his own era of the franchise forward, with the full support of both new and old fans.
Helping to pave that way for Usher is a nice bench of supporting players. Regina Hall and Alexandra Shipp are given refreshingly modern spin on "Bond girl" archetypes, to play smarter and feistier female counterparts that challenge the Shaft boys, and Richard Roundtree chews up scenery in his third act appearance, keeping the original Shaft as cool and suave as his younger descendants, while familiar faces like Titus Welliver (Bosch), Method Man, Isaach De Bankolé (Ghost Dog), Luna Lauren Velez (How to Get Away with Murder) all help fill the noir world of Harlem with some lively cop and/or crook characters.
In the end, Shaft (2019) is one of the more fun (if not forgettable) "passing of the torch" sequels/reboots that are so in vogue right now. It's definitely the kind of fun matinee screenings were made for, so if you're in need of some popcorn and a good laugh, Shaft will do its duty to please that... well, you know...
Rating: 3 out of 5
Shaft (2019) is now in theaters. It is 1 hour and 51 minutes long, and is rated R for pervasive language, violence, sexual content, some drug material, and brief nudity.
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