“Hotter than Bond, Cooler than Bullitt.”
That was the tagline for 1971’s Shaft, and there’s seldom been a more on-the-nose promotional descriptor for a film. Director Gordon Parks’ story of a private detective — with Richard Roundtree in the title role — taking on the mob and trying to recover the kidnapped daughter of a Harlem crime boss is one of the most stylish and influential films of the 1970s. It’s effortlessly cool, brutally violent, breathlessly paced, and the whole thing is held together by the late Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning, now-iconic music. The fingerprints of Parks’ classic can be found on many of the subsequent Blaxploitation films that became a hallmark of 1970s cinema.
In 2000, director John Singleton (RIP) delivered a reimagining, of sorts. Singleton’s Shaft put Samuel L. Jackson in the title role. (Roundtree shows up for a couple scenes as the original Shaft, said to be the uncle of Jackson’s character. More on that in a bit.) Singleton’s version doesn’t pack the visceral punch of the 1971 original, but it’s a reasonable facsimile. Jackson adequately conveys the conflicted nature of John Shaft, a detective who walks a tightrope between the law and the streets. There’s also a solid turn from Christian Bale as a racist rich guy who Shaft’s trying to take down for murder. It may not match the original, but 2000’s Shaft is a serious film that’s cut from the same cloth.
All of which makes the latest entry in the franchise, director Tim Story’s Shaft (yes, there are now three movies titled Shaft) something of a puzzler. You see, Story — who helmed Barbershop, the Ride Along movies, and the 2005 Fantastic Four, among others — has reimagined Shaft as a comedy. Well, an action-comedy, but one that leans heavily on the jokes. If you’ve ever thought, “You know, I wish they’d reboot Shaft, but make it a lot more like Rush Hour, but not nearly as good as Rush Hour,” well, you’re in luck.
The 2019 Shaft is a multi-generational affair that focuses on JJ Shaft (Jessie T. Usher) as a young FBI data analyst who’s out to solve the murder of his best friend. He enlists the help of his long-estranged father, private detective John Shaft (Jackson, back as the character he played in the 2000 film). Eventually, they also get an assist in the investigation from John Shaft Sr., played once again by Roundtree. However, in an odd bit of retrofitting, the new film portrays Roundtree’s Shaft as the father of Jackson’s Shaft, not his uncle, as was the case in the 2000 film. The on-screen explanation for this, which I guess I won’t spoil, is handled with all the grace of a giraffe on ice skates.
The film is a tonal hodgepodge that never quite finds the right balance between laughs and action. Jackson’s turn this time around is particularly jarring. While his character in the 2000 version wasn’t averse to popping off the occasional one-liner, this time around the quips come rapid fire. There’s just something odd about seeing an actor reprise a previous role, but play it completely differently. Imagine if Clint Eastwood did another Dirty Harry flick, only this time it was essentially a stand-up routine with handguns.
The new Shaft is also strangely retrograde, with Jackson’s character constantly chiding his son’s style and modern social consciousness, and making several barbs lamenting the state of the Millennial generation. That’s fine, but it’s an old-man-shakes-fist-at-cloud take on the character, which is a different look for the Shaft brand, which has always largely (and, until now, fairly successfully) sought to be hip, cool and ahead of the curve.
Still, there’s some fun to be had here. There were a handful of times I laughed quite loudly. Regina Hall shows up as JJ Shaft’s mother, i.e. an old flame of Jackson’s character, and steals a number of scenes. She has a bit in which she’s freaking out in front of a mirror that has a payoff with perfect comic timing. And it’s always nice to see Roundtree back in the role that made him a star. At 76, he’s still smooth as glass.
But, in the end, this one lands so far outside the historic vibe of the franchise that it almost feels like a parody of a Shaft movie. The 2019 Shaft isn’t a bad mother… it’s just bad.