As with all review-caps, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD. You’ve been warned.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 19 years since Samuel L. Jackson’s first outing as detective John Shaft. In the late John Singleton’s 2000 film, Jackson’s Shaft was the nephew of the original, the legendary John Shaft (Richard Roundtree). But in this newest version (and I’m not sure whether to call it a sequel or a reboot or both), director Tim Story and writers Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow retconned all that in order to turn this flick into a true multi-generational tale of a bada** crime-fighting father, son and grandson. While some say it’s not very successful at it, I actually found the flick to be a lot of fun and pretty dang clever.
So our story begins in Harlem in 1989, with Jackson’s Shaft in a car with his girlfriend Maya (Regina Hall), getting reamed in what you think is just the typical harpy-hassling-the-boyfriend setup. Except in the middle of all that screeching a major shootout starts, courtesy of some bad guys sent by a local drug dealer named ‘Gordito’ (Isaach De Bankolé) – yeah, cue those Taco Bell jokes. Gordito is Shaft’s latest target since he’s been flooding the neighborhood with crack. Of course Shaft wins the fight, but then we see the cause of all of Maya’s fury – an adorable baby boy in a car seat in the back (who’s amazingly unscathed even though the car gets shot up like Bonnie & Clyde).
Maya’s justifiably fed up with Shaft’s life endangering her and baby John Jr. (aka ‘JJ’) and she leaves, taking the baby with her. Then years pass in one of the more creative montages I’ve seen. One which not only shows John Jr. growing up and how disconnected Shaft is from him by not being there and sending him completely inappropriate gifts (like a gaudy Superbowl ring, a box of condoms and a bunch of porn mags). But it also gives us a snapshot of the changes in history, culture and most importantly and most relevant, the rise of political correctness from the late 80’s until now.
Cut to present day and JJ (Jessie T. Usher) is an MIT graduate, a data analyst with the FBI and the very picture of all things millennial. Maya’s done an excellent job raising JJ to be the exact opposite of his father – which, as we’re meant to see, is both good and bad. While he’s a genius with computers and eager to lead the next case monitoring a Harlem mosque for terrorist activity, his superior, Special Agent Vietti (Titus Welliver), sees him as nothing but the rookie nerd. And JJ just doesn’t have the leverage and enough “stones” to fight for what he really wants. JJ meets up later that night with his childhood buddies Karim (Avan Jogia) and Sasha (Alexandra Shipp). Karim, an Army vet with addiction problems, leaves them rather suddenly and suspiciously. JJ doesn’t give it too much thought at the time – but then he gets a call the next morning from Maya, relaying the tragic news that Karim was found dead of an overdose.
At the funeral, JJ tells Sasha he doesn’t believe Karim was using again. He’d just told JJ about a foundation he’d helped put together to help other for veterans in the same situation, helping them re-adjust to life at home and deal with addiction and mental health issues and get them back to work. JJ decides to investigate on his own, getting a hold of the medical examiner’s report, which reveals that Karim did indeed overdose – but with enough heroin to kill ten people.
A brave but naïve JJ in all his Gap-shirted, backpacked, mug-me-I’m-a-millenial glory, decides to go right to the scene of the crime and see what he can dig up. He ends up in one of the most dangerous parts of Harlem (I got a good laugh out of his Uber driver dumping him off and immediately peeling away) – and after getting hustled by a local kid who totally pegs him as the fish way-far out of water (“Do you work at the Apple Store? Or a Panera? Or do you make coffee drinks?”), JJ finds and walks right into a drug den. He tries speaking calmly with the dealer, Manuel (Ian Cassleberry) and his flunkies – but of course, all that ends up happening is that JJ proves how not up to the task he is. He can’t even show the guys a picture on his phone without getting all worked up about how much he hates the latest update.
So poor JJ gets clocked good and ends up in the emergency room getting seen to by Sasha, who tries to tell him he’s out of his depth. But JJ’s even more determined now, enough that he decides he needs to do something drastic, something he’s never done before – and get help from his father. He goes to the crappy building housing Shaft’s office, only to be greeted at the door by a stripper with her breasts hanging out of the trenchcoat she has on. While JJ’s all stunned and stuttering, Shaft comes up behind him with a gun to his head. It takes some shrieking and convincing, but a drunken Shaft finally realizes that it really is his son.
With a face full of the stripper’s body glitter, Shaft kicks his disposable girlfriend out the door with a slap on the behind and gets down to the business of getting to know his son. He assumes he already knows why JJ’s there and whips out a wad of cash for the ‘baby daddy’ situation he’s no doubt in. JJ’s totally offended by this and by the whole way his father presents himself – and at the same time Shaft wastes no time in deriding JJ for being the complete wimp his mother designed him to be.
Despite them mixing as well as oil and water, JJ makes his case to Shaft about Karim’s death – and Shaft realizes that JJ at least had the balls to go to Manuel’s turf on his own. So Shaft agrees to go back there with him – and while JJ’s whining about their lack of probable cause and rules of engagement, Shaft’s busy loading a shotgun from the back of his gorgeous classic Chevelle. JJ then gets his first lesson in how to do things the Shaft way as Dad goes in and wreaks havoc, shooting the place up. When he finally captures Manuel, he breaks the guy’s hand to get the information he needs. Turns out the heroin Karim overdosed on came from none other than Gordito – and also suggests a link to the veterans’ foundation Karim started. So Shaft agrees to keep helping JJ, but more for his own vendetta than getting justice for Karim.
Shaft and JJ visit the foundation called ‘Brothers Watching Brothers’ and meet the main guys, Major ‘Cutty’ (Matt Lauria) and his crew. Big surprise, Shaft immediately pegs them as being dirty. This was the one thing I really didn’t like – the way-too-often used trope of military = evil. As someone who comes from a military family and on behalf of all the people who serve honorably and sacrifice so much, I find that whole idea really insulting. But anyway, JJ doesn’t buy it at first, but after doing an illegal search of their bank records – with Shaft’s computer that he doesn’t use, because well, he’s Shaft – JJ finds a huge amount of money being funneled to the very mosque that the FBI was looking at.
The money trail leads to a mercado run by a relative of one of Cutty’s crew, Bennie (the awesome Lauren Velez). Shaft and JJ confront her in one of the flick’s best scenes, which encapsulates the spirit of the entire flick, as Bennie pulls a bat on them. When Shaft pulls his gun on her, JJ freaks out (insisting throughout the flick that he’s not a ‘gun guy’), telling Shaft he can’t attack a woman because it’s misogynistic. Shaft, on the other hand, insists that he doesn’t care what gender she is, she pulled the bat on them first and he’s an “equal opportunity ass-whooper.”
But then JJ learns a hard lesson when he tries his way of doing things and Bennie punches him in the face, knocking him right down. While JJ rolls around on the floor wailing and ranting hilariously (“Are there no non-violent people in Harlem?”), Shaft actually tries taking a hint from his son and instead of beating her up, starts shooting up all her stuff instead – cell phone, her thousand-dollar ostrich purse, you get the idea. Bennie still doesn’t give up any goods, but all’s not lost – JJ managed to plant a camera on her desk so they can monitor who she talks to.
While they wait, Shaft takes JJ out to a club to blow off some steam (one playing 70’s music, of course) – something that JJ objects to until Shaft introduces him to a couple of hotties who precede to get him loaded. He gets in a fight with another guy and in his drunken uninhibited-ness, manages to show that he actually is kind of a bada** by taking the guy down with some nifty Capoeira (aka dance-fighting moves – yeah, you read that right, dance-fighting moves). But then he pukes on one of the girls. Eww. Shaft drags his inebriated kid to his “commercial for a Pier 1 Imports” apartment and puts him to bed, nearly puking himself as he tries out the coconut water JJ asks for to replenish his electrolytes.
At this point, Mama Maya comes back into the picture, visiting town to see JJ – something which Shaft is both scared of and excited about, since he’s curious about Maya’s dorky new boyfriend, Ron (Leland Jones). Curious enough to do his own digging and find out where they’re meeting for dinner. Maya’s furious to find Shaft there and wastes no time giving him the verbal beatdown (hysterically referring to the two hotties hanging on Shaft as “Lady Syphilis and Madame Chlamydia”) for getting involved with JJ after he swore he would stay away. But then Maya gets an unhappy reminder of old times as a bunch of Gordito’s guys suddenly show up and start shooting the place up, gunning for Shaft.
At the same time, Gordito’s also sent guys to go after JJ at the restaurant he’s at with Sasha. Even though he’s not a gun guy, he makes a respectable showing using Sasha’s mini-pistol – an impressive and manly enough showing to make Sasha go suddenly goo-goo eyed as the Ronette’s ‘Be My Baby’ plays and the rounds eject from the baby pistol in super-slow motion. Yeah, it’s a little weird.
At this point, JJ’s gotten himself in enough trouble to get suspended from the FBI. But he’s ride or die now, following a lead from his surveillance of Bennie right back to the Brothers Watching Brothers crew. JJ and Sasha scope the place out, and JJ sneaks inside just in time to hear Cutty and his guys having a totally self-incriminating conversation (of course). Not only that, but JJ manages to get cell phone video of Cutty killing one of his own guys. But then, of course, JJ trips over something and gives himself away. JJ’s a goner until Dad rolls in in that beautiful Chevelle – which then gets heartbreakingly shot up. Heartbreaking, I tell you. Then Cutty kidnaps Sasha and drives off.
So who can JJ and Shaft turn to now that they’re out of firepower and a car? If you guessed John Shaft Senior – you’re damned right, and you can dig it. Richard Roundtree makes his grand entrance with his gorgeous white beard – but it turns out he’s been living a pretty mundane life in his 70’s man-cave. He’s only too happy to lend his help and his considerable weapons cache. And when Shaft asks if he’s sure he wants to go, Shaft Senior hilariously replies that he’s “bored as sh*t up in here.” He claps off his Clapper lights on the way out.
So at this point, everything shifts into what I like to call ‘yeah-okay-whatever’ time, where the plot goes completely bonkers and loses all sense of – well, sense. Because it’s not about making sense anymore, it’s all about the three generations of Shafts showing off their collective bada**ery. They rappel (yes, rappel, a la Die Hard style – although JJ’s the only one who can’t bust through the window) into Gordito’s high-rise lair to rescue Sasha and shut the bad guys down. When Gordito tries once again to kill JJ (which was apparently what he was trying to do back in ’89 and failed miserably), it’s Shaft who takes the bullet for his son.
When the dust settles and Shaft’s recovering in the hospital and all’s right with the world again, it’s a made-over JJ who walks back into the FBI offices just so he can tell Special Agent Vietti where they can stick their offer of promotion. Then he walks out with Dad and Grandpa Shaft, all three of them wearing the exact same outfit (which is either super-cool or super-cheesy depending on how you’re feeling about the flick at this point), stopping traffic as they head off on their next crime-fighting crusade.
Now I’ve talked before about how I wish the studios would produce more mid-budget flicks, and Shaft falls right in that category. It was solid, fun and I was a satisfied customer coming out the door. Sure, one could go on all day about how the story could have further explored its suggested themes of what it is to be a man in this day and age. How that idea has changed since the 70’s and about how the whole Blaxploitation genre is just plain wrong. Not to mention how Samuel L. Jackson’s portrayal of a violent, womanizing, narrow-minded dinosaur is nothing to be emulated. But I think Tim Story and crew took the better approach by mixing the expected action with a good bit of comedy – comedy where both Shaft and JJ share equal time as the butts of the jokes. And both Jackson and Usher’s performances pull off that comedy without becoming caricatures, showing each generation reluctantly learning from the other and coming to an understanding.
In fact, I would even say that the flick does explore those more serious themes – it just does it with sense of fun instead of the sledgehammer of pretentiousness. In the meantime, it still brings the action and singular Shaft-style coolness that will never, ever go out of style – no matter how politically incorrect it is.
Directed by: Tim Story
Written by: Kenya Barris, Alex Barnow, Ernest Tidyman (novel)
Release Date: June 14, 2019
Run Time: 1 hr 51 min
Distributor: Warner Bros./New Line Cinema