Matrix cosplay is still going strong.
While the glory days of the Shaft films were before our time, we had a friend in high school that somehow became a big fan. His affection for John Shaft rubbed off on us to an extent, and though we’ve never gone back and watched the original Richard Roundtree films, we were fairly excited for the return of Samuel L. Jackson in Shaft nearly 20 years after originally rebooting the series with the late John Singleton in 2000.
After surviving an assassination attempt, Shaft’s wife, Maya (Regina Hall), decides to take their son and leave Harlem. Some 20-plus years later, JJ (Jessie Usher; Independence Day: Resurgence) is now an MIT graduate and cyber-security analyst for the FBI. Following the suspicious death of his best friend, JJ decides to investigate on his own. When he runs into trouble, however, he reluctantly looks up his estranged father John, who is a private investigator.
Given that John is an old-school, non-PC relic of a bygone era, he and JJ don’t see eye to eye on much, but when John sees a connection between JJ’s case and a drug kingpin he’s been after for decades he decides to help. Their initial investigation points to a mosque that has received a major cash infusion from a local grocery store with known criminal ties. JJ brings this information to his bosses at the FBI, but when they move on the mosque it turns out everything is above board.
This misstep costs JJ his job at the FBI, and he returns to his father just in time to overhear John’s ulterior motive for helping him. With his friend’s murder still unsolved, JJ revisits a previous lead and learns what happened. He’s discovered, though, and his friend Sasha (Alexandra Shipp; X-Men: Apocalypse) is kidnapped. Now JJ will have to enlist his father and grandfather (Roundtree) to get her back and bring his friend’s killers to justice.
We like Jackson, especially when he’s playing his signature role of being a bad-ass MFer that’s dropping clever one liners and spitting out profanities every other word. He was born to be the modern Shaft, and he’s unleashed in the 2019 version in a more enjoyable manner than he was in the previous Shaft film. He may actually have less screen time than Usher, but this most definitely comes across as Jackson’s movie.
To his credit, Usher plays off Jackson very well in the classic buddy cop formula of the straight guy and the rule breaker. Their chemistry carries most of the film’s funniest moments, and we’d be surprised if we don’t see this pairing in another Shaft movie down the line, even if this one felt a little like passing the torch. The tertiary roles even have their moments with Shipp a solid love interest, Hall funny as the angry yet still interested ex- and Roundtree, who gets some pretty good lines in a brief turn.
We’re not the most PC people out there by any stretch, and we get that part of the story is about Shaft’s outdated attitudes toward people, but the whole “you’re sure you’re not gay, son?” subplot is questionable at best. It’s always played for laughs, and Shaft doesn’t seem to have any malice against homosexuals, but much of it is just old stereotypes. To be fair, JJ calls him on that, and the similar “too white” comments. It’s still a little much.
Conversely, the plot could’ve used a little more. It feels more like a collection of situations than a cohesive arc, and it’s all extremely formulaic and predictable. We’re told about this heinous drug lord that has eluded Shaft for years, but his role is so small that there’s no juice to the inevitable confrontation. The film as a whole lacks a decent bad guy, so while you can root for the Shafts there’s no one to root against.
THE BONUS FEATURES
A lengthy documentary detailing the original Shaft films with Roundtree is by far the most substantive and interesting extra, assuming you care about the film’s origins. If not, the only other goodies are a 10-minute “making of” featurette, a handful of superfluous deleted scenes that check in at less than three minutes combined, and a gag reel.
Classic cinema this is not, but we had fun with Shaft despite its shortcomings thanks to its supporting performances and Jackson being Jackson. Even after all these years, that man Shaft is one bad mother…