It’s been almost 40 years since moviegoers were introduced to the action hero John Shaft, played by Richard Roundtree in three trailblazing movies and one short-lived TV series. Heroic, revolutionary and confidently, powerfully sexual, Roundtree’s version of the character became a cultural icon, thanks in no small part to an unforgettable, Oscar-winning ode to his awesomeness, composed and performed by Isaac Hayes.In the decades that followed there have been two attempts to revitalize the motion picture franchise. The late, great John Singleton cast Samuel L. Jackson as Shaft’s nephew in the exciting 2000 reboot, which skillfully balanced the action and social commentary inherent to the character, and yet somehow it never yielded a proper sequel.
Now, 19 years later, we finally have another reboot, this one about the third generation of Shaft, played by Jessie T. Usher (Independence Day: Resurgence). Jackson and Roundtree both return to bring a sense of continuity to the franchise, which would probably have been satisfying if it felt like this new Shaft had remotely the same tone as the others.
Shaft (2019) takes the franchise and turns it into an unremarkable and disappointing comedy, which is ostensibly about a murder mystery but takes more time telling jokes about how millennials are wimps, old people don’t understand computers, and how John Shaft Sr. really doesn’t want his son to act gay. These are all jokes that would have been outdated and ignorant decades ago, and here we have Shaft – the bastion of all things cool and revolutionary – espousing them with a fingernails-on-chalkboard earnestness.
The film tells the story of John Shaft Jr., whose mother Maya (Regina Hall) left Shaft Sr. to protect their child from his violent lifestyle. Over 20 years later, Shaft the Younger is an FBI data analyst who doesn’t like guns and can’t seem to ask out his childhood crush, Sasha (Alexandra Shipp).
When Shaft Jr.’s best friend Karim (Avon Jogia) dies under mysterious circumstances, it’s up to our young hero to investigate, but his investigation takes him to the New York underworld and there’s only one person he knows who can guide him. Shaft Sr., a private detective, takes the case and then proceeds to bicker incessantly with his son about topics ranging from proper lemon storage to internet porn to the aphrodisiacal properties of guns.
Over the course of the movie, Shaft Jr. finds his confidence and proves himself just as capable as either of the other Shafts, but only because he abandons almost everything that made him unique and becomes more like his father. All the backwards ideas that make John Shaft Sr. a joke throughout most of the movie turn out to be exactly the kind of weirdly regressive ideology that Tim Story’s story actually believes in.
It’s perplexing that this attempt to update Shaft for the 21st century makes him less cool – and significantly more homophobic – than he was in the 1970s, and it’s frustrating because Jackson, Usher, Roundtree, Shipp and Hall are all engaging performers who would normally make this material work. It’s the material that fails them at every turn. Instead of updating the sensibilities of Shaft for modern audiences, and speaking to the systems of oppression that a modern Shaft would have to deal with, this film makes Jackson’s Shaft into a one-note joke and forces everyone to deal with his obnoxiousness.
It’s not much of an action movie. Tim Story’s Shaft is shot like a sitcom and none of the fights or shootouts have anything noteworthy to make them stand out. The confident sensuality of Richard Roundtree’s Shaft movies is missing, and in its place there’s a lot of awkward sex talk between the hero and his dad. And in a world where racism is a hot button talking point, the film carefully sidesteps almost every opportunity to make the new or old Shafts part of that conversation, and in so doing make the character relevant again.
It would be one thing if Story was trying to translate the tough, worldly, violent and sexual world of Shaft into something that could appeal to all audiences, but the film is riddled with overt sex jokes and casual gun violence and swearing, so it’s got an R-rating anyway. Only kids are likely to appreciate how juvenile this new Shaft is, but only adults are invited into the theater. And the adults in the audience will probably know just how important Shaft is, as a character and a franchise, and be let down by this disappointing new rendition.