Do you know how refreshing it is to say that there’s a new Shaft movie? While I never grew up watching the original Richard Roundtree trilogy of films, or the short-lived miniseries, I always knew just how cool, suave, and badass he was. Whether it was in the 70’s or the reboot in 2000, Shaft was, and still is, a cool cultural icon. He’s the father of the Blaxsploitation genre that reigned in the 70’s, a genre that’s all but faded away due to shifting tides in taste and acceptability. Regardless of political correctness, I love the 1971 Shaft for just how smooth it is. It’s the kind of style that can’t be replicated no matter how hard you try.
But try they did with this new film! Instead of being a throwback to the Blaxsploitation genre of old, the 2019 version of Shaft instead plays it more like a buddy cop comedy, just with a lot of swearing, sex jokes, and action that you would expect from a comedy starring Shaft. If you were expecting more of a hard crime flick like the original, you’re definitely going to be disappointed with the new Shaft. Thankfully I wasn’t looking for a 70’s throwback to classic Shaft, so I had a complete blast.
Director: Tim Story
Release Date: June 14, 2019
Shaft Jr. (Jessie Usher) grew up in New York City never knowing who is father was. He knew that his dad was a private investigator, but outside of the odd birthday gift like a Superbowl ring, condoms, or Hustler magazines, he never wanted to meet his father, John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson). Once he finds his best friend dead under mysterious circumstances, Jr. decides to finally pull the trigger and meet his estranged father and hire him to figure out what happened to his dead friend and maybe, quite possibly, reconnect with his father. But then he remembers that his dad is kind of an asshole, so that idea goes up in flames seconds after they meet.
For a movie that’s billed as having three different generations of Shaft appearing onscreen, including Richard Roundtree, we spend most of our time following Usher and Jackson’s version of the character without Roundtree. In fact, Roundtree’s role amounts to no more than a cameo and only offers up a few fun callbacks and nods to previous movies. While that normally would be fine, because he was so heavily featured in the marketing, I kept expecting Roundtree to pop up with some classic Shaft flair, only to get nothing. Instead I got an abysmal EDM version of Isaac Hayes’ still iconic song that made me flee the theaters when it played during the credits. This is a movie focused on the newer and more recent versions of the character with barely a mention of the original.
Truthfully, I’m a bit mixed on Usher’s character since he’s so close to being interesting in his own way, but the movie never feels quite confident in establishing a unique identity for him. At the start of the movie he’s meek, adverse to using guns, and seems like a pretty nice enough guy. So of course he’s the butt of a large share of the jokes at his own expense, only coming into his own as he gains more confidence in himself. Unfortunately, when he does gain his own self confidence, he just turns into a younger version of Samuel L. Jackson with most of his unique set of skills ignored in favor of just making a younger Shaft. This gives us a character that looks and sounds cool, but is robbed of anything unique about him besides being the atypical young one of the trio.
It’s weird why the movie is so insistent on turning Jr. into a carbon copy of his father since Jackson’s Shaft is so damn entertaining in his own right. I could go on for an ages explaining to you why Samuel L. Jackson is perfect as an older Shaft that’s still smooth as silk, but I don’t need to. He’s Samuel L. Jackson. You can say whatever you want about the 2000 version the he starred in, but this is the role that Jackson was born to play. The movie is running on all cylinders when he’s on screen, delivery perfect lines with a confidence that only Sam Jackson can give.
That isn’t to say that Shaft idolizes Jackson’s take on the character. Jackson is the punchline of plenty of jokes too, mostly about how he’s kind of a sociopath with an ego to boot, and most of them land. The repore between him and Usher is fantastic as they both feed off each other and make their exchanges all the more enjoyable. Whether it’s Jackson teaching his son how to be tough or Usher pointing out how his dad’s advice sounds like the ranting of a lunatic, I was laughing my ass off watching this. It’s just that funny.
Make no mistake, this is a comedy that isn’t afraid to offend people. There are plenty of n-bombs, gay jokes, sex jokes, and a whole host of other offensive jokes that would make Helen Lovejoy beg for people to think of the children. And while not every joke lands, most notably the jokes about how Jr. is a Millennial, the majority of them do work. If someone comes out of Shaft offended by the type of humor on display, I’d have ask what they were expecting. It’s Shaft. The roots of this movie are entrenched in a genre that’s “problematic,” but that doesn’t take away from the fact that this is a very funny movie. There’s no maliciousness behind the jokes and my audience was going nuts, hooting and hollering at nearly every joke, and I was right there with them.
The characters are 100% the star of the show here, so don’t come into this thinking there’s going to be a plot worth getting invested in. The plot is just an excuse to take the characters to different set pieces, and a frankly confusing excuse too, involving a crime lord from 25 years ago, an Islamic mosque, army veterans, and a Mexican supermarket. It’s forgettable at best, which is a shame because I was almost always invested in the plot of previous Shaft movies to some capacity. Here it feels like an afterthought.
That’s because the plot isn’t the main focus here. Shaft, at the end of the day, is a comedy that isn’t afraid to offend people and have a good time. The goal was to bring all three generations of the character together and crack a metric ton of jokes along the way, and it succeeds at that. I like the relationship between most of the characters, despite how all of the Shafts start to blend into each other at the end, but there are way more hits than misses here. This is looking like it’s gonna be one of the biggest surprises of the summer, as well as one of its most underrated gems. I didn’t expect to have as much fun as I did with Shaft, but I’m glad this worked out as well as it did. You know if you’re the target demographic for this movie or not, so just know that if you like what you see in the trailer, you’re gonna really dig Shaft.