Shaft is a colossal and embarrassing waste of time.
While the “nostalgic reboot-quel” has become the du jour method for reinvigorating a stagnant film franchise, it’s far from a one size fits all solution. What worked in The Force Awakens, David Gordon Green’s Halloween and, perhaps, Tim Miller’s upcoming Terminator: Dark Fate requires a very specific mixture of homage to a universal classic and enough updating to make something old feel fresh and new.
The new Shaft film proves turning every reinvention into an awkward repackaging of the past isn’t going to work forever. It’s a film whose every problem is rooted in its terminably stupid premise. Rather than setting up shop with a new actor as iconic private eye John Shaft and telling a modern story that echoes the ethos of Ernest Tidyman’s novels or the Gordon Parks directed original film, director Tim Story and “Black-Ish” writer Kenya Barris have crafted a faux-generational tale threading the Richard Roundtree version though John Singleton’s underrated 2000 Shaft starring Samuel L. Jackson.
They’ve woven a tale of three Shafts, introducing Jessie Usher as “JJ” Shaft, a skinny jeans wearing millennial who does cyber security for the FBI. Ostensibly, JJ is the lead for this film, as he’s the son Shaft II, originally Roundtree-Shaft’s nephew in Singleton’s film, abandoned earlier in life. When JJ’s childhood best friend suffers a surprise heroin overdose that smells fishy, JJ decides to go rogue from his day job to solve the mystery, with the help of his deadbeat dad (Jackson) and later, the OG Shaft himself. But the family-affair bent of the plot isn’t the problem.
If JJ was his own new character and the real focus of the narrative, with him reaching back for help in his own lineage, Jackson and Roundtree’s respective presences would be fun easter eggs for longtime fans of the character while also allowing a “new” Shaft to be established and potentially reignite the series. But JJ isn’t really a character, or much of a person. He’s a one-note caricature of Gen-Y, a walking and talking punchline for every “joke” his father makes at the expense of young people. It’s an insufferable paradigm for this kind of movie, one that turns a blaxploitation-era action franchise into the same middle of the road comedy Story has made a career out of rehashing.
Though there’s been a fair share of cheesiness in every iteration of the Shaft adaptations, he’s always been positioned, first and foremost, as an archetypal black hero and a James Bond-level pop cultural figure. There’s a fantasy element, a wish fulfillment side to the badass, tough-talker who plays by his own rules, but his adventures have also always been at least loosely tethered to deeper narratives about racial injustice and the kind of harsh social realities that offshoots of the noir genre have historically tackled so well.
For all its studio gloss and sheen, Singleton’s 2000 film still had genuine things to say about the intersection of race and the justice system and explored what it means to be a black man working in or adjacent to that systemic corruption. This 2019 Shaft is a film more concerned with transphobic jokes and easy gags about young people drinking too much coconut water than anything resembling that kind of storytelling.
The regressive perspective highlighted throughout this movie doesn’t even line up well with any previous version of the character, so if Roundtree and Jackson are going to play parodies of themselves, why even make this about Shaft? Outside of name recognition, Story easily could have helmed a goofy comedy about three generations of detectives dedicated to mocking millennials, with those two actors leveraging their pop cultural cachet to play comedic simulacrums of their iconic roles. It’s insulting to take a figure and a brand like Shaft, one that could be utilized for both popcorn thrills and actual substantive themes, and turn it into two hours of Sam Jackson asking his corny and uncharismatic son if he’s gay.
Audiences may have a blast at this movie for all its broad humor and clean visuals, but Shaft is a hollow picture, one that would be disappointing even if it was just a pilot for some shitty Netflix version of Shaft aimed at the same aunties and uncles who think young people really are exactly how Spike Lee’s fifty year-old writers script them on his “She’s Gotta Have It” series. For anyone drawn into the film by, y’know, actually liking Shaft, it’s a colossal and embarrassing waste of time.