A film review by Craig J. Koban October 3, 2019

SHAFT (2019) j
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2019, R, 111 mins.

 

Jessie Usher as John "J.J." Shaft Jr.  /  Samuel L. Jackson as John Shaft II  /  Richard Roundtree as John Shaft  /  Alexandra Shipp as Sasha Arias  /  Matt Lauria as Cutty  /  Regina Hall as Maya Babanikos  /  Avan Jogia as Karim Hassan  /  Lauren Vélez as Bennie  /  Method Man as Freddie P.  /  Tashiana Washington as Sugar  /  Isaach de Bankolé as Gordito

Directed by Tim Story  /  Written by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow

The original 1971 SHAFT was an urban detective noir that helped usher in the "blaxploitation" genre into the mainstream during its decade in question, and also made star Richard Roundtree a bona fide box office star and sex symbol.  That film spawned multiple sequels, as well as a sort of sequel, sort of reboot in 2000, directed by the late John Singleton and featuring everyone's favorite mutha f-bomb delivering star Samuel L. Jackson assuming the titular role (it turned out that he was actually Roundtree's Shaft's nephew).  The series laid dormant for nearly two decades, which leads us to the very confusingly titled SHAFT, which like Singleton's effort, serves as both a direct follow-up to what came before and a re-imagining of the tone and vibe of the whole series.  This might arguably be the only franchise in the history of movies to have three of its five entries feature the exact same title. 

Creatively puzzling name choices aside, this new SHAFT is definitely new, but in no way shape or form an improvement of the established series milieu.  In an absolutely bewildering and alienating move, the creative team here - headlined by FANTASTIC FOUR and RIDE ALONG director Tim Story (arguably the least qualified filmmaker to helm this type of material) - have heavily modified SHAFT: It's no longer a gritty, streetwise detective thriller and instead is a smugly and groan inducingly self-aware comedy that the makers think is shrewdly satirical of the overall brand.  Instead of cheerfully embracing the films' blaxploitation roots and cleverly subverting them, SHAFT redux comes off more as a pitiful and slapsticky TV sitcom replete with all sorts of R-rated shenanigans.  In short, this installment is just a few dial adjustments short of approaching NAKED GUN levels of spoofery, minus, of course, any level of sophistication with its humor and gags.  

It also begs one obvious question: Is this what die hard fans of SHAFT want in this series...for it to be one near two hour mocking joke of what's come before?  

I'd like to think no. 

 

 

After some awkwardly assembled introductory scene flashbacks that begin in the late 1980s that then skips forward multiple years (even highlighting the events of the 2000 film) to eventually arriving at the present day, we're introduced to another new Shaft in FBI analyst John Jr. ("J.J.", Jessie Usher), who's a squeaky clean agent "working for the man" and is a far cry removed from the type of man that is his  estranged father (Samuel L. Jackson), that being a "private dick who's a sex machine for all the chicks" that plays by his own agenda and rules in Harlem.  There's always been a wedge between John and J.J., seeing as the latter's mother in Maya (Regina Hall), was so fearful of the type of lifestyle John lived that she separated herself and her son from him indefinitely.  J.J. managed to turn out okay, even though he's fairly meek minded when it comes to the pressures of ascending the FBI ladder and dealing with his overbearing boss.  In short, he's kind of a wimp. 

Tragedy strikes J.J. early on, when his BFF (Avan Jogia) dies of an apparent drug overdose, despite his insistence that he was living a clean life of recovering beforehand.  J.J. is instantly suspicious, but he realizes that he may be in over his preppy head in terms of digging up dirt on what actually happened to his pal.  Rather reluctantly, he decides to enlist the services of - yup - his papa in John Sr., whom he's barely had a relationship with for most of his thirty years.  Predictably, the rough, rugged, and aggressively hedonistic dad seems equally reluctant to help his son ("What kind of business could your Don Lemon ass need from me?" he sarcastically jabs at one point).  That leads to further insults on his part, challenging his offspring's libido as well as his own heritage, lambasting the khaki and buttoned up shirt wearing dweeb for being "too white" to be a real man.  J.J. is equally mortified with his dad, seeing as he's his polar opposite as a booze guzzling, whore using, and law breaking enforcer that uses every questionable method in the book to get results.  Nevertheless, this fire and gasoline mixture of father and son hits the streets to turn Harlem upside down to find out the true fate of J.J..'s buddy. 

There's a kernel of an interesting idea at play here in SHAFT, especially when it comes to honing in on the generational divide between two Shaft family members, one being a product of the smart phone using Me Too era and the other being a relative dinosaur of a different and arguably more regressive period.  There's some initial intrigue in seeing the gun and violence hating son that plays by every rule team up with his aging father that really hasn't changed at all in the last thirty years in terms of maintaining his reputation for being a rampant troublemaker.  Considering the times we exist in now, SHAFT could have explored all kinds of potentially compelling thematic material about the nature of toxic masculinity in the past and how that faces barriers with contemporary notions of what being a man really means now.  Unfortunately, the screenplay by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow doesn't have the patience or faculties to tackle such intriguing ideas with any substantial or intelligent weight, seeing as they're more interested in making this new SHAFT into a pratfall and gag dispensing machine that becomes more annoyingly retrograde and insufferable to endure with each new minute. 

I have no problem with a rebootquel that tries to shake things up with established iconography in an effort to make the material feel fresh and inviting to new audiences.  Mournfully, SHAFT takes a complete and utter nose dive from the types of films that Roundtree made all those years ago.  Story and his team are changing the franchise, yes, but are completely failing to pay homage to it, mostly because they've morphed it into a criminally unfunny action comedy hybrid abomination.  The original SHAFTS (and even the 2000 iteration) were anything but subtle and were not afraid to go places with the character and storylines, but they respected the character and mythology enough to not make them the butt of cheap jokes.  And so much of the humor here is so forced and painfully obvious that you think that Jackson, Usher, and their co-stars are about to look into the camera and give an obligatory wink to audience members.  When many of the verbal zingers fail to score hearty laughs, there's an awful lot of fourth wall breaking dialogue that's hard to endure (like one moment when Jackson complains about people confusing him with Laurence Fishburne).  Beyond that, there's ample homophobic humor that stains the film, like John Sr.'s constant belittlement of his son's sexuality.  If this film had any nerve or balls it would have made J.J. homosexual.  Now that would have made for some interesting character dynamics. 

Then there's the way that the female characters here are still uncomfortably used as props, which leads to one of the film's more disparaging messages.  Maya, for example, is shown as an ultra shrill hothead who hates everything her husband represents, but then later - gosh darn it! - comes to accept and embrace John Sr. for the trigger happy motormouth he's always been.  To make matters worse, J.J..'s girlfriend in Sasha (Alexandra Shipp) is a doctor and, one would expect, a fairly strong willed and independent minded character, but when she sees him finally manning up while blowing away assailants during one attack sequence at a restaurant she's fawning over him like a child would for a new puppy dog.  This rings utterly false, if not a bit offensively.  The women here are either (a) playthings/props used for the characters' sexual conquests or (b) blindly obedient shrews that let the men in their lives take action when they can't.  The sexual politics of the early SHAFT films were obviously not bastions of progressive thought, but there's a real wasted opportunity here to evolve the franchise. 

So much of this SHAFT frustrated me to no end, and beyond its highly polarizing alterations to the whole vibe of the series, there are storytelling particulars that are just idiotic, like retroactively making Roundtree John Sr.'s father (he was revealed as his uncle in the 2000 film).  And speaking of getting the (ahem!) marketing shaft, patrons entering the cinema to see three generations of this character on screen together (as featured heavily on the posters and trailer campaigns) will be angered to no end when they realize that Roundtree only shows up in the final 15 minutes in a criminally brief cameo (also head spinning is that the blaxploitation silver screen god is just six years older than Jackson).  That stinks.  If there's one saving grace to this film (outside of seeing Roundtree oozing cool again) then it's the presence of Jackson, who does what he can with awful material and at least makes this dreck passably watchable at times because of the pure entertainment value of witnessing him verbally tearing strips off of people with reckless, potty mouthed abandon.  

Beyond that, SHAFT is an unpardonable mess.  It's a crummy sequel, a misguided reboot, and wretched piece of fan servicing.  There's simply not much to dig here.  

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