The Holy Shaftity. Private detective John Shaft II (Samuel L. Jackson) has always been a sex machine to all the chicks, balancing his need for exacting the law with lust. Destined to forever be a childless bachelor? No. In 1989, he and Maya (Regina Hall) were not only married, they had a son, of course carrying the bloodline name. The nature of Shaft’s work doesn’t make it conducive to raising a child, so the two make the difficult-but-shared decision that sees the famous private eye do what he continues to do best while staying away from Maya and son.
Now in present day, “JJ/Junior” (Jessie Usher) has grown under the guidance of his mom, graduating from MIT and being employed by the FBI as a data analyst. He’s skilled, but square. When a personal tragedy hits home, Junior questions the police report and sets out to get help from one man who won’t cop out when there’s danger all about. Shaft family reunion? You’re damn right.
Remember Uncle Drew last year? A comedy of whom’s main character was conceived out of a YouTube PepsiMAX video had no business being as amusing as it ended up being. Shaft circa 2019, while not holding a distinction of coming from a soda product’s marketing, does come from an IP that was last relevant when Napster was throwing the music industry into a tizzy. This is all a lengthy way of saying that yours truly had massive doubts about the potential of a rebooted retelling to a middling “remake.” I stand erected…err, corrected. The new Shaft hits pretty right.
The late John Singleton (rest in power) modernized the classic character for the millennium in 2000, and for those unaware, he and star Jackson consistently argued over the direction and approach of the film—and watching the 2000 iteration, a viewer can feel its volatility. Not grimy enough to make for a compelling crime-thriller, and not humorous enough to work as a lighter action-comedy. In this latest effort, director Tim Story (Ride Along, Barbershop, Fantastic Four) and lead star are in lockstep on the type of movie Shaft needs to be. There’s an uptick in action outfitted with an old-school score from Christopher Lennertz, featuring a few entertaining music video-like firefights here and there along with a basic story of corruption mixed with terrorism, of which the specific details within it get hazy. As these films can go, the mystery is already solved, all that’s needed is the acquired evidence to make the bust.
However, Shaft is a comedy first, action and everything else second. A consistently funny comedy. Story and co-writers Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow seem to have taken at least a modicum of inspiration from the Jump Street reboots. No, this isn’t completely meta heavy, but, the truly hilarious moments in Shaft 2019 revolve around a sort of deconstruction of the blaxploitation genre, which had an affinity for painting its lead characters—often male—as slippery smooth, sexual studs who thrived on being loud and uber-tough, and any “weakness” or emotional sensitivity were grounds for ridicule and a questioning of one’s potency and sexual lean. Funny? Yes. Offensive? Yes also. Some may only see Shaft as a sexist, toxic-masculine feature, but Story and company do play up Shaft as ridiculous (the movie is seen through JJ’s eyes); not without personal merits, though clearly working with an outdated mindset.
If Shaft were unsure of itself, it would never allow Jackson’s character to be the butt of jokes, for that would undermine his duty to please the booty and always be the smartest guy in the room. Here though, Shaft II receives just as much as he gives, and it makes for one of the better SLJ expletive-laden performances in quite some time. When he’s operating with a clear movie directive, especially in a comedy, few can deliver time and time again with the unbridled energy that he can. It helps as well that Jackson and his persona at 70 (his character is 60-ish) fits an older John Shaft way better than him in his early 50’s attempting to play a role that would have probably been better for, say Wesley Snipes at the time.
His chemistry is prominent with co-star Usher, he being an exhibit on how sometimes being funny is more about delivery than dialogue and content. Obvious humor is derived from how the two couldn’t be any more different yet share the same blood, and shockingly, a bit of old-fashioned father/son heart is derived from their paring also. In limited screen time, Hall makes the most of it, and Alexandra Shipp even manages to steal a little comedic thunder from Jackson and Usher. Last but not least, Mr. O.G Shaft himself Richard Roundtree is an active participator in the movie’s climatic 3rd act, a welcome far cry from the glorified cameo he made in 2000.
With a clearer tone and firmer goal, Shaft 2019 not only manages to be competent and better than what came before it, it builds legitimate interest and a stronger-than-expected case for another sequel surely carrying the same movie title. Surprisingly diggable.
Photo credits go to IMDB.com, latimes.com, and dailymail.co.uk.
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