Shaft (2019)Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/13/19 15:26:27
At one point during “Shaft,” the fifth big-screen adventure centered around the quintessential blaxploitation hero (and the third of the bunch to be called “Shaft”), a character refers to the titular hero, bad-ass detective John Shaft, as being “the black James Bond.” If this is true—and there was a time when I for one would not have argued that particular notion—then this film finds him trapped in the equivalent of one of those lesser Roger Moore vehicles that told lame, unfocused and creatively bankrupt stories that leaned way too heavily on the kind of forced humor that tried to plant its tongue in its cheek but ended up landing it somewhere lower. I suspect that most people coming into this film with at least some working knowledge of the history of the franchise will probably have certain expectations regarding what they hope to find—most of them presumably revolving around Shaft swooping in at any given moment to shoot a lot of bad guys in the face while the unmistakable voice of Isaac Hayes goes on at supremely funky length extolling his virtues both as a detective and as a ladies man par excellence. What they are probably not expecting to see are endless scenes featuring Shaft as a grumpy ol’ gun-toting man constantly complaining about those darn millennials with their WiFi and their Ubers and coconut water. And yet, that is the aspect that ends up dominating the proceedings and transforms what was once a genuinely revolutionary and transgressive action franchise into little more than an extended episode of “The Cosby Show” with a higher body count than usual.Actually, save for a 1989-set prologue, very little of the opening scenes of “Shaft” have anything to do with Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) himself.Instead, the focus is on his estranged son, John Shaft Jr. (Jessie T. Usher), who went away with his mother, Maya (Regina Hall) when he was just a baby and has barely seen his father since. Now working as an FBI data analyst, John is content with his station in life until childhood friend Karim (Avan Jogia), an ex-soldier and former junkie who has cleaned up and gotten his life back on track, meets up with him one night and mentions something that he wants to talk about later before turning up dead of an overdose. The cops are willing to write Karim off as just another dead junkie but both John and his other childhood friend , spunky doctor Sasha (Alexandra Shipp) have their suspicions and John decides to use his position as an FBI agent to investigate a little further. Turns out that Harlem drug dealers are not too keen on having low-level and unarmed FBI agents turning up at their crack dens looking for information and John gets smacked around a bit for his troubles.
At this point, John reluctantly elects to ask his father, who is still running a detective agency out of a dilapidated and decidedly old-school office (so old school, in fact, that he doesn’t even use a computer to keep his files straight), for help in his investigation. Though appalled by his son’s allegedly metrosexual ways and his willingness to work for the Man for a living, Shaft agrees to help and after “interrogating” the drug dealer, Shaft and John are pointed in the direction of an organization that Karim belonged to called Brothers Watching Brothers, a support group for ex-soldiers and recovering addicts that ships wrecked cars from Afghanistan to rebuild and resell as a way of raising funds. Unsurprisingly, this all sounds a bit peculiar to Shaft and son and before to long, they connect the group first to a local mosque and eventually to Gordito (Isaach De Bankole), a legendary local drug dealer who is Shaft’s white whale, so to speak. inevitably, it all comes together in a climactic orgy of flying bullets and shattered glass as the two Shafts, now aided by Shaft’s own heavily armed father (the legendary Richard Roundtree), go around shooting pretty much all of the bad guys in the face while dropping droll quips along the way.
Truth be told, none of the previous “Shaft” films—not the original 1971 hit nor the two quickie sequels (1972’s “Shaft’s Big Score” and 1973’s “Shaft in Africa”) nor the 2000 reboot—were particularly good movies, either then or now. That said, they all had points of interest that made them worth watch—the original was a B movie that turned out better than expected thanks to the slick direction by Gordon Park, Roundtree’s inimitable presence and the classic score, the sequels still had Roundtree around to carry them and the reboot had a surprisingly strong cast that, in addition to Jackson, included Jeffrey Wright, Toni Collette and Christian Bale—and managed to find a balance between the hard-edged action and the occasional moments of humor thrown in here and there to lighten things up. Most importantly, the character of Shaft was just so effortlessly badass that he became an instantly iconic figure in action cinema with fans of all backgrounds reveling in the character’s unhesitating sense of pure swagger as he cut through all the red tape and hassles and brought the bad guys down without ever seeming to break a sweat. Of course, there are plenty of elements on display in the original “Shaft” that might not exactly play well today and anyone attempting to revive the character for contemporary audiences would have to figure out a way to bring him into the 21st century without losing sight of what made him stand out against the comparatively bland action heroes of his era. The 2000 reboot, for example, made some strides at finding a contemporary context for such a character (such as making him a second-generation Shaft) and while the end results were not totally successful, at least an effort was made.
By comparison, this iteration of “Shaft” has so little connection with either the franchise’s past or with coherent contemporary action filmmaking in general that one has to wonder if anyone involved with the proceedings had even seen a “Shaft” film before signing on for this one. The screenplay comes from two writers, Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow, who are more associated with television and that makes sense since the story often feels like an extended pilot for a lame multi-generation action-comedy series that was hurriedly turned into a “Shaft” screenplay by doing little more than adding the name “Shaft” to the material as needed. I suppose that the idea of Shaft trying to work with his thoroughly modern son could have inspired some degree of humor but that does not happen here—Shaft’s constant grumbling about evidently alien concepts like contemporary musical sounds or treating women with some vague degree of respect make him seem more like a heavily armed Andy Rooney than anything else and the bits where he finds himself wonder at length if his son is one of those homosexual types—he does dress nice and his fridge does contain plenty of coconut water—are so dated and off-putting (especially for a film opening during Pride Month) that it feels as if someone threw a couple of reels of “Norman, Is That You?” into the mix. (Meanwhile, scenes that cry out for a comedic spin, such as the moment when John is suspended by the FBI and forced to turn in his badge and, uh, keycard, are presented in the most dully sincere manner imaginable.) As for the action beats, it is clear that Tim Story, the auteur behind the Jessica Alba-era “Fantastic 4” films and the “Ride Along” franchise, has been given plenty of money with which to stage them but it all goes to waste since he has no real eye for such things—the shootouts and chases are as formulaic as can be and will go on to stick in the imagination of absolutely no one.
As has been the case for too often throughout his career, Samuel L. Jackson has once again been asked to supply the film with the sense of danger and excitement and edge—along with a certain degree of humor (which usually comes to the surface when he busts out with some extended string of obscenities)—that a more thoughtful production might have included in the actual screenplay. Unfortunately, this turn finds him ransacking his usual bags of tricks—including screaming loudly whenever possible and seemingly never going more than three sentences without finding some new and creative use for his favorite twelve-letter word in all of its various permutations—in lieu of giving an actual focused performance. He somehow manages to come across as both lazy and lively (at least comparatively so), which unfortunately only makes the contributions by Jessie T Usher as the millennial Shaft even more dubious—even given the fact that he is supposed to be a meek milquetoast for the majority of the film (at least until he finally picks up a gun and starts killing people with startling accuracy), he is so aggressively bland and insubstantial that the story comes to a dead stop whenever he takes center stage (which, since this vehicle presumably exists to launch a new series centered around the new kid, is a lot). Richard Roundtree, on the other hand, still has charisma to spare and is spry enough to be reasonably convincing during his big action moments but he enters the fray so late that he doesn’t really get a chance to goose things up in the way that he clearly could have done based on what we do see of him here. Oh, and if you are fans of Regina Hall and Alexandra Shipp, be prepare to be really disappointed because they are stuck with relentlessly one-dimensional characters who seem tough and capable at first but who end up fading away into the background when things start jumping—they both even have to enact that tiresome cliche of the woman who inexplicably finds herself immensely turned on by the sight of her man putting a couple of bullets into the brains of some hapless henchman.Clumsy, inane and retrograde in all the wrong ways, “Shaft” is a film that has all the earmarks of being one that was made not because anyone involved had a smart notion of how to make John Shaft work in a contemporary context but because it was a familiar name that they wanted to exploit to some moderate degree of success at the box-office. Sure, it is nice to see Roundtree up on the screen again and even a coasting Jackson is still good for a few bits of humor here and there. Alas, they have been ill-served by a project where the only thing working for it is the fact that it is so utterly anonymous and ultimately forgettable that virtually everyone who encounters it will quickly forget about it entirely. Well, at least until they go channel hoping one day, happen upon a listing for “Shaft” and end up getting this ersatz nonsense instead of the real thing.
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