In 1971, the film industry saw the release of the blaxploitation flick, Shaft. Starring Richard Roundtree as the lead role, the initial film by Gordon Parks tells the tale of a private detective traversing the New York City underworld to find a mobster’s kidnapped daughter. Along the way, he faces the stigma of racism, black nationalism, and gang violence. Part social commentary, part urban cowboy, the flick remains cult hit among audiences and has even produced four sequels.
Which brings me to the latest installment in the franchise. Tim Story’s film, Shaft, presents the saga to the latest generation. The violence, sensuality, and charm of the original film is definitely there, but Shaft doesn’t quite hit the mark to be a truly remarkable film in 2019.
The film opens with John Shaft II – played by Samuel L. Jackson in his second stint in the franchise – surviving a hit by a notorious Harlem gangster. Though he survives, his marriage does not. Three decades later, Shaft II’s son, JJ – played by Jessie Usher – is a data analyst at the FBI. Unlike his trigger-happy alpha-male father, JJ Shaft is a timid beta-male with a fear of guns and women – obviously two big no-nos in any Samuel L. Jackson flick.
After a close friend is murdered in a gang hit, JJ takes it upon himself to hunt down the killers – but not without recruiting his street smart father. As the duo go deeper and deeper into New York City’s underworld, the Shafts also embark on a personal quest to rekindle their relationship as father-and-son. All they have until then is their quick wits and their trigger fingers.
Shaft produces a number of laughs in the right spots and doesn’t overhype the action. There is a well-told story here and most characters have the right amount of depth to keep it from getting dull.
Unfortunately, there are some hiccups. Samuel L. Jackson is Samuel L. Jackson in this one: Loud, reckless, and dripping with four-letter words. He produces laughs in his delivery and holds the audience’s attention, but there is not much development with his character. There is one segment where he and JJ debate over the virtues of apologizing, which he considers to be unmanly. Later on, Jackson does man up and apologize for all his past sins – then it’s onto mowing down bad guys again. Jackson does his part well as Shaft II, but without a doubt, part of this film intends to showcase how much of a badass Samuel L. Jackson can be. I think everyone knows at this point.
As for the latest generation in the Shaft family, I don’t mind Jessie Usher’s portrayal of JJ. His physical stature and screen presence makes him a pretty good fit. However, it’s hammered home a little too much that he is the underdog between he and his father. JJ’s high-pitched and slightly effeminate delivery works for the first few minutes, but halfway into the film, it becomes redundant and – I dare say – a tad more overwhelming than Samuel L. Jackson. He’s dorky, but they could have shed this aspect of the character a tad faster.
Probably the biggest hiccup with Shaft, unfortunately, is that the creators don’t seem to know what audience to shoot for. The original Shaft in 1971 aimed towards a generally African-American audience and those from an urban environment. Times change, obviously, but without that context, New Line Cinema’s film comes off as just another action movie with gunshots, wise-cracks, and foul language.
This in mind, for all its faults, Shaft picks up when Richard Roundtree makes his appearance as the original John Shaft. Once the three generations of the Shaft family come together, the chemistry between Roundtree, Jackson, and Usher make the remainder of the film shine. Once more, context will help – but even then, the trio produce enough laughs and action that they don’t waste anyone’s time.
The latest Shaft film is neither the best nor the worst in the franchise. It makes for a pretty decent watch if you’re familiar with the series. Otherwise, it might be best to check out the 1971 version and move up the ladder before landing on this one.
Although a bit out of place for its time, the fifth Shaft film packs enough gunfights, wisecracks, and thrills to make it a decent entry in the series. Samuel L. Jackson fans will not be disappointed, and neither will fans of Richard Roundtree.
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