Review: Shaft (2019)

Director: Tim Story

Stars: Samuel L Jackson, Jessie T. Usher, Regina Hall

Gordon Parks’ 1971 film Shaft is probably the mainstream’s flagship title from the blaxploitation run of the era, but it – and its sequels – are also outliers in the subgenre. The majority of the pictures that fall into this bracket were about vigilantes, pimps, hustlers, or the wrongly accused. Regular people reaching a crossroads, making a choice or taking a stand. John Shaft, meanwhile, was The Man. A cop. Part of the system. The movies were well made (even the undermined and silly Shaft In Africa) but the hero sat apart.

Still, he had Isaac Hayes’ theme song. By 2000, the legacy was secured for a major studio remake from John Singleton, starring Samuel L Jackson. And now, nearly another twenty years on, here we are again. Tim Story’s 2019 Shaft is – mildly confusingly – a sort-of sequel to the last, and not a second reboot. Jackson reprises his role, getting roped into a crusade belonging to his son; Jessie T. Usher as Shaft, Jr.

How to recalibrate this franchise for the modern era? Seems its difficult. Shaft in 2019 does at least recognise the aforementioned disparity between its brand and other films of its day. Shaft, Jr doubles-down on working for The Man; he works for the FBI. But – and this feels quite pointed – he’s not an FBI Agent. He’s a data analyst. When a friend of his suffers an overdose that he can’t help but find suspicious, he decides to investigate. He has no authority to do so, but he does have access to a lot of useful resources.

So it’s a kind of have your cake and eat it situation, which sets up Shaft 5.0 with the potential to straddle the best of both worlds. Junior is both the cop and the underdog. Not that the film particularly takes advantage of this. It’s too bogged down by its own strange identity crisis. The 70’s are gone. The world remembers, but the world has moved on.

Screenwriters Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow skew the vibe of the piece closer to network situation comedy, but this iteration still has love for the trappings of the movies of old. Witness, for instance, the scene Jr. discovers when he first goes to his father for professional assistance. Or Titus Welliver’s stereotypical ‘chief’. Still, Black Dynamite need not worry. A lot of the jokes made here are at the expense of Shaft, Jr.’s modern attitude toward things like guns, fashion, gender and what being a man means. In 2019, Shaft doesn’t particular embrace change. There’s even a surprisingly conservative pot-shot against trans identities manifesting in kids. Shaft wants to be modern, but it doesn’t like modern. Shaft, Jr’s just another snowflake millennial who needs to ‘man up’. SIGH.

There’s something to be said for elements of John Shaft’s more direct, ‘no bullshit’ approach. It taps into the spirit of the original, at least, and allows the movie to let rip with a couple of token (if uninspired) action set pieces. But more often Jackson is encouraged to play the part as if he were someone’s clownish, lecherous uncle. We’re supposed to side with his world view, even as he’s depicted as something of a bozo. Suddenly it feels as though the movie itself doesn’t particularly like either character. So who the hell are we even here for?

Isaach De Bankolé’s final boss is a non-event. On the peripheries, Regina Hall adds some great energy, but she hasn’t nearly enough screen time. Her very presence reminds you that Support The Girls has arrived in UK cinemas and you definitely ought to be getting off the sofa to see that movie. Alexandra Shipp is given similarly thankless supporting duties as the object of Shaft Jr.’s ineffectual affections. Of course act three comes down to a case of rescuing the princess. Come to think of it, if the under-utilised women make up the movie’s better portion, why aren’t we seeing reboots of Coffy or Cleopatra Jones?

The threadbare (feeble) plot sends father and son to a suspicious mosque, because that’s an arena that a flick with political deafness needs to sink into, while a mid-film set piece problematically eroticises a restaurant shoot-out. Somewhere there’s a mansion full of middle-aged NRA members watching this flick in a Tony Soprano-style home cinema, thinking that they’re fly for embracing a black film and having a whale of a time before a quick 9 holes at the country club.

So the question becomes… who ordered a Republican Shaft movie…?


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