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Shaft (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 1, 2020


SHAFT (2019)

Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie T. Usher, Regina Hall, Alexandra Shipp, Richard Roundtree, Avan Jogia, Clifford “Method Man” Smith, Matt Lauria, Robbie Jones, Callan Mulvey, Lauren Vélez, Isaach De Bankolé, Tashiana Washington, Chivonne Michelle, Ian Casselberry, Sylvia Jefferies, Jessica Medina, Athena Akers, Adrienne C. Moore, Jalyn Hall, Amato D’Apolito and Almeera Jiwa.

Screenplay by Kenya Barris & Alex Barnow.

Directed by Tim Story.

Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. 111 minutes. Rated R.

When I first saw the trailer for the new reboot of Shaft, it got me pondering from the recesses of my mind… hey, didn’t they try to reboot this franchise before?

Yes, they did. In 2000, the late director John Singleton did his own take on the 1971 classic that is considered one of the staples of the blaxploitation genre. The 2000 redo starred Samuel L. Jackson as the original John Shaft’s nephew – who is here for the new version as well. (In the new film the character is Shaft’s son, not his nephew, but that change is explained away with one flippant line of dialogue here.) The 2000 Shaft also featured Richard Roundtree, the original Shaft (he starred in three films and a TV series as the character in the 70s). Roundtree is back along for the ride here, too.

The new film adds yet another generation of Shaft – JJ, or John, Jr. (although technically he’s John III) – as played by Jessie T. Usher.

Three generations of Shaft men. Two of whom have been in previous versions of the characters’ films. It’s not so much a reboot of a reboot as it is a continuation of a saga.

It’s also played here for comedy. And you know what? The new Shaft is surprisingly funny, one of the best comedies so far this year.

This Shaft is one bad mother…. And we can dig it.

It is nothing like the original, of course. Any serious sense of plot or action is jettisoned for the humor. So, if you are a fan of the original films, perhaps you should take a pass – or at the very least adjust your expectations. There is nothing really serious about the new Shaft – even though they do touch on such serious issues as drug abuse, PTSD, gun violence, misogyny, racism, etc.

Nonetheless, this Shaft is all about the laughs.

It is a fish out of water (fish out of time?) movie in which an aging street-smart tough guy has to deal with his long-lost son, who is a sensitive, shy, thoughtful, woke millennial.

Warning for the sensitive types, though: Shaft is not PC. It is rude and crude. It is violent (in a cartoonish way), sort of sexist, sometimes vaguely racist, and revels in misbehaving and being offensive. The plot is slapdash and doesn’t really make much sense, but it’s not supposed to. It’s just an excuse to get to the jokes.

But what can I say? The jokes mostly work. The audience at the screening I attended was hysterical laughing almost straight through. And I personally laughed harder than I have at a comedy since the similarly rude and crude Game Night, another surprisingly funny black comedy.

The screenplay, co-written by black-ish scribe Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow, does try somewhat to pull the Shaft franchise into the new millennium. However, the macho swagger of Samuel L. Jackson, unleashing his normal brand of expletive-laden cool, overwhelms the attempts to bring the character into a new worldview. Then when Roundtree shows up late-ish in the film, and nearly steals it away from Jackson, the possibility of a new-generational Shaft seems absurd.

Usher is perfectly fine – often very funny – as the son who has been raised to be the polar opposite of his father, but his comic work is somewhat overshadowed by the old pros. And his woke-ness only goes so far, too. No matter how civilized he may be, the way that he finally gets out of the friend zone with his long-time crush (Alexandra Shipp) is by gunning down a restaurant full of gangsters. So, even if he tries to fight off a hangover with coconut water, the acorn didn’t fall all that far from the tree.

From the very moment when we first encounter Samuel L. Jackson taking down some bad guys to the immortal wah-wah guitars of Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft,” the audience is set for a good time. The new Shaft looks at a past hero through a post-modern, ironic gaze, but he still kicks ass.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2019 All rights reserved. Posted: June 14, 2019.

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