Hard to believe, but it’s been nearly forty years since Richard Roundtree first hit screens in the original Shaft, and nearly twenty since Samuel L. Jackson first played the second generation iteration of the character. High time to get the Shaft family back in action – this time with a third generation Shaft who’s – wait for it – a metrosexual computer nerd. Jessie T. Usher (When the Game Stands Tall, Independence Day: Resurgence, Stronghold) plays JJ Shaft, who’s been raised by his divorced mother and now works as a data analyst for the FBI in New York City. When a childhood friend (Now Apocalypse’s Avan Jogia) an Afghanistan War veteran and recovering drug addict, turns up dead from an apparent heroin overdose, JJ tries to investigate on his own, quickly finds himself in over his head, and turns to his estranged father, John Shaft (Jackson).
This is Tim Story’s (Barbershop, Taxi, Fantastic Four, Ride Along) most stylish direction to date, though note that the movie also benefits strongly from superb New York City second unit shooting (most of the movie was actually shot in Atlanta). Story milks his modest budget like a loan shark and turns in a polished, stylish product.
Shaft is a pleasant throwback to seventies action movies, when other than James Bond, the hero wasn’t out to save the world. Generally, heroes had personal, accessible motivations that made us root for them. CGI wasn’t a thing back then, and you could either do the stunt or you couldn’t. Climaxes were usually mano a mano throwdowns between the hero and the villain. The 2019 Shaft works that way, although in many ways this movie bears about as much resemblance to Gordon Parks’ groundbreaking blaxploitation flick adaptation of Ernest Tidyman’s novel of the same name as prime rib at Smith & Wollensky’s to to a Quarterpounder with Cheese. They’re both beef, but… Samuel L. Jackson’s John Shaft is a coarse, off-the-grid loner, while Richard Roundtree’s original character (which he reprises in the new movie) was suave, smooth and most of all, cool.
That doesn’t matter much here. Jackson isn’t playing John Shaft, Sr. – he’s the son of Roundtree’s original character. Never mind that in the late John Singleton’s 2000 Shaft sequel (does it bother anyone other than me that there have been three movies in the same franchise with the same title?) Jackson’s Shaft was the nephew of the Richard Roundtree Shaft. Apparently they were father and son all along, and somewhere between then and now they straightened that out. And you thought you had Daddy issues. (Don’t even think about the fact that Roundtree is only five years older than Jackson.) More to the point is the fact that at 71, Jackson can still credibly kick ass on screen. Actually, so can Roundtree.
The plot is a little too convoluted, requiring extensive expository dialogue scenes, which as a rule are not audience favorites. But watching JJ come into his own, sometimes with, and sometimes in spite of, his father’s advice is fun, and clearly the filmmakers are hoping the character interplay will justify another movie (which is might). The chemistry between Jackson and Usher works, and the action, which is where this movie lives and breathes, rocks. The intervals between action set pieces are too long, a criticism that could be leveled at many sixties and early seventies action movies, including Bullitt.
The supporting cast is excellent. Alexandra Shipp, currently on multiplex screens in Dark Phoenix, is luminous as JJ’s childhood friend and potential love interest, who is now a conveniently situated ER doctor. The electricity between Jackson and Regina Hall , who plays his ex and JJ’s mother, crackles. Hall, who cut her teeth early on the Scary Movie movies, and moved on to an impressive string of movie and TV appearances, including most recently The Hate U Give, is increasingly emerging as an accomplished veteran actress. Titus Welliver adds to a long line of performances as the bureaucrat you love to hate. There’s a rogue’s gallery of heavies, all of who get the job done.
The audience will be listening for the original Isaac Hayes theme, which along with Monty Norman’s James Bond theme and Hans Zimmer’s recent Wonder Woman theme are without a doubt the three best character themes ever written. They’ll get it, as well as the David Arnold 2000 lyric-less reboot, though probably not as much as they’ll want.
Shaft, like the title character(s), gets the job done, not without a sense of nostalgia. The door is left open for another installment, which would be fine, if Warner Bros. can get it made in less than the nineteen years between the last two installments. Maybe it could even have its own title.