Shaft (United States, 2019)

June 13, 2019
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Shaft Poster

Shaft (2019) is the third film to bear that name, following a 1971 movie and a 2000 reboot/sequel. It’s the fifth film in a series of sorts (there were a total of three movies in the 1970s to go along with a short-lived TV series), but the Shafts are almost entirely disconnected from one another. The only thing you gain from familiarity is the ability to discern a few of the in-jokes.

In 2000, the late John Singleton decided to exhume blaxploitation icon Shaft from the shallow grave where he had lain since the failure of the 1973 television experiment. Recognizing that Richard Roundtree (the original John Shaft) didn’t have the box office clout to pack ’em in, he hired Samuel L. Jackson to play the title role while paying homage to the original Shaft by casting Roundtree as “Uncle John.” Singleton’s Shaft was a modest box office success, although not big enough to rev up the sequel/franchise engine. The film’s tone was mostly straightforward (with mildly comedic elements) as befitted a 1970s property time-shifted to 2000. It was not an outright comedy or parody.

Some properties won’t stay dead. 2019’s Shaft is technically a sequel to the 2000 film. Jackson is back as the title character, although he is noticeably less dour than he was a couple of decades ago. The actor became comfortable with self-parody in 2006 when he made Snakes on a Plane and he has no trouble using that mode for this movie. This is Jackson in full profanity-tirade, supercool, kick-ass mode. He is once again ably supported by Roundtree (age 76 with hair gone white) who now plays Shaft’s father (the apparent discrepancy is “explained” in a throwaway line). Jessie T. Usher portrays the third generation Shaft, a boy Jackson’s character parted with when he was a kid. John Shaft Jr. is a meek FBI analyst who doesn’t like guns and is afraid to ask out his long-time crush (Alexandra Shipp) on a date. Regina Hall is Junior’s mom, a tough-talking woman who can swear just as loudly as her ex-husband. The movie’s underdeveloped, underplayed villain, the revenge-minded Gordito, is played by former Jim Jarmusch regular Isaach De Bankole.

If you watch Shaft expecting to see an action-parody/comedy, you’ll probably enjoy yourself. This movie never comes close to taking itself seriously and is always on the lookout for the next gag, pun, or joke. The film’s inspiration seems to be the 21 Jump Street re-imagining by Lord & Miller. It has the same kind of irreverent spirit and lack of concern for a coherent or compelling storyline. The action/thriller aspects are throw-aways and best ignored whenever possible because they make no sense whatsoever. This movie is a celebration of Jackson, blaxploitation, and how silly things that were “cool” in the ‘70s look now that four-plus decades have passed.

The director is Tim Story. Although Shaft doesn’t redeem his shoddy track record (which includes the abysmal Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and two Ride Along abominations), it at least shows that, given the right material, he can make an entertaining movie. It’s hard to compare this Shaft with its immediate predecessor because the movies have different goals. Singleton arguably understood the character of John Shaft better but Story recognizes how to make changes that grant accessibility to a modern audience.

No one steals scenes from Samuel L. Jackson when he’s in this mode. His entire modus operandi is to be the biggest, baddest motherf... (watch your mouth!) on the planet. Nevertheless, Regina Hall gives him a run for his money – something she does with a lot less screen time. (Her Taxi Driver-influenced mirror talk is a highlight.) Richard Roundtree provides a nice connection to the original Shaft – you have to respect the producers for asking and the actor for accepting. Jessie T. Usher, someone with a TV-heavy resume, is a little bland but maybe that’s what happens when sharing scenes with Jackson and Hall.

Internationally, where Shaft is not a recognizable brand, the movie is going directly to Netflix in a move that will likely become commonplace as streaming encroaches on the theatrical distribution model. For U.S. viewers with an affinity for what Shaft represents, the experience is worth the price of admission. What the film fails to deliver in adrenaline, it makes up for with testosterone-flavored laughter.

Shaft (United States, 2019)

Director: Tim Story
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie T. Usher, Richard Roundtree, Regina Hall, Alexandra Shipp, Isaach De Bankolé
Home Release Date: 2019-09-24
Screenplay: Kenya Barris & Alex Barnow
Cinematography: Larry Blanford
Music: Christopher Lennertz
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 1:51
U.S. Release Date: 2019-06-14
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Drugs, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: Action/Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1