Created by novelist Ernest Tidyman, John Shaft was first introduced to cinema audiences with Gordon Park’s Shaft (1971). Portrayed by Richard Roundtree, its success led to two further sequels and a watered down television series.
Things remained quiet for the character for quite a length of time before director John Singelton decided to reboot the character. Shaft (2000) now had superstar Samuel L. Jackson in the lead role, playing nephew to the original John Shaft. Roundtree reprised his role from the original series but in a lesser capacity.
This new take on Shaft proved to be a gritty, action packed crime thriller, featuring an on form Jackson accompanied with an electric supporting cast made up of the likes of Toni Collette, Christian Bale and Jeffrey Wright. Sadly, this iteration of Shaft did not catch on with audiences the way the filmmakers would have liked, leading to an almost two decades absence for the character.
Director Tim Story has now taken up the task of bringing the Shaft character to a new audience. Once again called Shaft, this new feature is actually another sequel, making the title somewhat confusing.
Both Samuel L. Jackson and Richard Roundtree return to their signature roles, joined by a third, younger member of the Shaft family, JJ (Jessie Usher), a cyber security expert with the FBI. After surviving an assassination attempt in 1989, JJ’s mother Maya (Regina Hall) decided to bring up her son alone, away from his father’s violent lifestyle.
After the apparent suspicious death of his friend, JJ decided to investigate. As the FBI seemingly have no interest in the case, JJ has no choice but to employ the services of his estranged father to help him uncover the truth.
Unfortunately, this new updating of Shaft has proven to be even less successful than the last, with most critics overlooking how fun the film is, instead complaining that it does not live up to the original or how the character is now outdated in these modern times.
Story does a great job of keeping the momentum going. Where Singleton’s film took a more gritty approach to proceedings, focusing on racism and police corruption, Story takes a much more light hearted approach more akin to the buddy cop comedies made popular in the eighties and nineties.
This is not to say that it does not feature its own fair share of violent action, with the shootouts being filled with blood and gore and played mostly straight. Other than the opening, the film takes its time to get to the action. When it does come, it does not disappoint.
A memorable restaurant shootout scored to The Ronettes song “Be My Baby” is just one of the films action highlights, with another being the bullet strewn finale which finds three generations of the Shaft family taking on the villains. While the action does not offer anything in the way of originality, it should still keep action fans more than happy.
Although it may not be saying much, as his filmography features the likes of Fantastic Four (2005) and Ride Along (2014), but this is probably the directors most enjoyable film to date and a step in the right direction for him.
Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow’s script thankfully does not try to update the character for the new millennium, keeping him very Un-PC. Shaft continually spouts p*ssy and gay jokes, and is way out of touch with modern culture. He is clearly a man out of his time and the scriptwriters do not try to change this.
The scriptwriters also have fun with the audience’s preconceived notion of JJ, who initially comes across as a nerd only to prove that he is more than capable when the time comes. Sure, some of the jokes do not always hit their mark, but there is still some laugh out loud moments peppered throughout.
Samuel L. Jackson slips easily back into the role of John Shaft. It is hard to believe that almost twenty years has passed since he last played the character as he has hardly aged a day. Even at 70, he is totally believable as the tough private eye, getting right into the thick of the action. The only drawback is that this will probably be the last time that we get to see him in the role.
Considering his previous filmography, Jessie T. Usher does surprisingly well as the youngest Shaft. Initially appearing like a computer geek, he gradually comes into his own as the film progresses, showing an aptitude for drunken capoeira and gunplay when required. He certainly fares better than he did in Independence Day: Resurgence (2016), his previous big budget outing.
It takes quite a while before Richard Roundtree finally makes an appearance, but it is worth it. He is far better utilised here than in the previous movie, with him actually getting involved in quite a bit of the action during the climax. He has a great rapport with Jackson and Usher, and if anything, the only issue with his performance is that he is not in the film more.
Of the females in the cast, Regina Hall fares better than co-star Alexandra Shipp, who mostly gets wasted in the typical damsel in distress roles that these types of film are known for. Hall at least gets a number of funny scenes, especially one hilarious sequence where it appears she is talking to herself in a bathroom mirror.
Also look out for Titus Welliver, Lauren Velez and Method Man who pad out the supporting cast with small but notable turns.
The one main drawback this has in comparison with the previous movie is the lack of a good villain. Whereas that film had Christian Bale and Jeffrey Wright as the main bad guys, the villains of this story are not fully shown until the final third. Jim Jarmusch regular Isaach de Bankolé does show up as the films big bad, but he is given hardly any screen time to truly make an impression.
Although released to cinemas in America, the movie has gone straight to Netflix internationally, opening it to a potentially wider audience. While some may be disappointed that this version of Shaft takes a somewhat more comedic approach than past entries, I would still urge them to give it a chance.
Written by Guest Reviewer: Darren Murray (Facebook Profile)