Director: Tim Story
Writers: Kenya Barris, Alex Barnow, Ernest Tidyman (based on the novel by)
Starring: Samuel L Jackson, Jessie Usher, Richard Roundtree, Regina Hall, Alexandra Shipp, Avan Jogia
Almost 40 years after its conception way back in 1971, 2019 brings us the 5th film in the Shaft film series and, confusingly, the third film in the series to bear the title of 'Shaft'. The last was released 19 years prior, and was Samuel L Jackson's first portrayal of John Shaft II, the son (or nephew, depending on who you ask) of Richard Roundtree's classic and dangerously smooth John Shaft who led the series' first three films. This time a third Shaft is added to the mix, as Jessie Usher enters the franchise as John Shaft Junior, giving us a three-generational buddy-cop action-comedy. However, while Usher's inclusion highlights the obvious attempt to re-market this franchise to a new, fresh audience, Shaft seems to be stuck in the past.
Despite the franchise ageing 19 years, Shaft appears to be unaware that times have changed, with many of the film's assertions being so conflicting with current views and attitudes that it can only be deliberately obnoxious or due to a woeful lack of self-awareness. The fundamental issues with this film can be roughly personified by the words and actions of the titular character, brought to life for the second time by Samuel L Jackson. Whereas his year 2000 incarnation of the character may have captured the suave essence of Roundtree's earlier portrayals, this latest take on Shaft leans more towards sleaze that it does smooth.
Much of the dialogue in this film is so impolitic it may actually cause you to wince, and the majority of it is uttered by Jackson. Throughout the course of the film, Jackson's Shaft openly argues against respecting women, advocates many toxic views on masculinity and at one point makes the remarkable statement that having a degree is un-African American - mostly set within one of the most brazenly harmful representations of Harlem you are likely to see in a mainstream blockbuster. It could be argued that many of Shaft's views and opinions may act as a reflection of an older generation, and to act as a contrast to the more contemporary views of his son Junior. But these statements and attitudes go largely without consequence. As the film blasts its way towards its conclusion Samuel L Jackson's character does take steps towards learning the error of his ways and becoming more amenable, but ultimately leaves the film very much the same character he was when he entered. Half-hearted attempts are made to challenge Shaft's problematic thinking, but few of these are delivered with any meaningful force, and none are followed through to completion, with the same homophobic, misogynistic and stereotypical attitudes persevering right to film's end. Problematic attitudes remain unchecked, the wrong lessons are learned, and the film ends having resolved very little.
On the side of social justice, however, we have John Shaft Junior, a 30-something FBI data analyst played by Jessie Usher, who presumably serves to act as a more sensible counterweight against his hot-headed father, but who is instead more often than not the butt of the joke. While Usher's dialogue isn't riddled with issues he simply doesn't boast the acting chops of his on-screen father, and so his performance is far from bad but certainly unremarkable. Missing from his portrayal is the comedic prowess needed to make it stand out amongst the wealth of other talented comedy actors currently working in film, but nor is he afforded any significant moment during which he can demonstrate any real dramatic flair. In his own film, Usher may have shone more brightly, but when sharing the stage with the action and comedy powerhouse that is SLJ, more is needed in order to stand out.
Roundtree's eventual appearance is welcome if not obsolete, but regardless of his relevance to the story it is pleasing to see his return to the iconic character and the back-and-forth that he and Jackson share. Regina Hall is perfectly adequate as Junior's mother, but isn't given much to do other than direct a shrill yell at Shaft for the majority of her scenes, and look unamused at his continuous wisecracks, a look that the audience will likely share by the film's end.
Given a more tactful and intelligent approach to its target audience, this film would likely fare very well. It is generally a taut action thriller, at times even summoning a distinct noir feel combined with an energetic and expressive soundtrack full of hip-hop and R&B. There are bursts of humour which are well-earned and genuinely funny, but the majority of this film's repertoire consists of poking fun others and getting away with it. For a reboot, this film seems to demonstrate a striking lack of understanding regarding its current audience, and shouldn't be surprised that a whole generation won't warm to a film that spends two hours mocking it.
In one line: While this film delivers on the action, the humorous part of this action-comedy foolishly relies on out-of-date humour to please a modern day audience, ultimately preventing this franchise from growing up.