John (played by Jessie T. Usher) is shocked to discover his best friend has died under mysterious circumstances. When he can’t fully utilize his connections with the FBI and fails to turn up evidence on his own, John makes a desperate plea for help and reaches out to his Dad… Detective John Shaft, played by Samuel L. Jackson. Can you dig it?
Amusing but pretty slight, this sequel has a serious identity crisis (is it a crime dram, a buddy comedy, or a parody?), before it finally settles into a generation gap comedy. In fact, there’s so little action in this, most of director Tim Story’s new Shaft consists of Jackson and Usher walking around, exchanging quips. Surprisingly, this low-key approach works, as Jackson is terrific and the politically incorrect dialogue, harsh violence, and overt sexism (in this movie, women get real turned on by gunplay) give it a novel edge.
The opening title credits fill us in on how the times have changed for John Shaft Sr. over the years, as his sleazy existence as a crime fighter contrasts his son’s far more conventional life. Tellingly, there are a number of clips borrowed from the 2000 Shaft, which was directed by the late, great John Singleton; even though the Singleton film fizzled out by the third act, that film told a great story, contained a terrific ensemble cast (Christian Bale and Jeffrey Wright were superb playing the villains) and balanced real grit with a cheeky tone. Singleton’s film was too slick and mainstream to qualify as real down and dirty blaxploitation but, in its best moments, still packed a punch. That shot of Shaft hurling his badge at a white judge and lodging it into a wall is still thrilling and progressive. Story’s film will offend some but, fatally, wants to be all things for all people. The closing scenes here are awfully safe and made hard to take by the rotten remix of the title theme. Seriously, you don’t take one of the most exciting movie theme songs of all time and drown it with auto tune and dopey lyrics. Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning masterpiece is all over Singleton’s Shaft and isn’t utilized enough in this one.
Usher is just OK here, as he only plays the nerdy millennial angle and doesn’t really develop much of a character. He’s better here than he was playing Will Smith’s son in Independence Day: Resurgence but this is another potential breakthrough that doesn’t really take. Jackson is the whole show here and much of this plays as a homage to his entire career. The biggest laughs are nods to aspects of Jackson’s past (including how he was once mistaken for Lawrence Fishburne) and he even gets to recite his best line from the 2000 Shaft. The only real threat Jackson faces is being upstaged by Richard Roundtree, the original Shaft, who appears late in the third act and gets laughs every time he opens his mouth.
In addition to Story not being a daring enough filmmaker to take this on, the screenplay is both obvious (the setup is right out of Beverly Hills Cop) and convoluted. There’s a subplot about Muslim suspects that never properly develops but still feels like an uncomfortable addition that should have been eliminated.
The new Shaft is fun but isn’t all that good. There are enjoyable scenes that work but the whole thing is too lightweight and lazy to leave a strong impression. Chalk it up as a guilty pleasure, particularly if you’re a fan of Jackson. Seeing Jackson play Shaft in 2000 was a tremendous joy and he’s especially loose and sly here. Jackson is still one bad mother– shut yo mouth! Hey, I’m just talkin’ about Shaft. Right on.
Two and a Half Stars
Rated R/111 min.
Image courtesy imdb