SHAFT (2019) – Review
So here’s another sequel for the Summer. Or is it a sequel/ reboot? More specifically, could it be a sequel to a reboot? It really could be all three. For this flick’s beginning, we have to go all the way back to 1971, almost fifty years ago when a fairly low budget action movie became a sensation, mainly because its hero was an African -American, a first. SHAFT from director Gordon Parks is thought to be one of the first films to open the way for a wave of flicks that some dubbed “blaxploitation” (a term that many pop culture historians disdain, preferring ” low budget independent films aimed at urban audiences”). The story of an ex-cop private eye snagged an Oscar for Best Song and inspired a couple of sequels and a CBS TV series before fading into the late, late movie roster. Then in 2000, the late John Singleton brought the character back to the big screen, giving him the full studio treatment. Now nearly twenty years later, that version gets a follow-up, but one that could begin yet another franchise. As with the first and second flicks, it is simply called SHAFT (can ya’ dig it).
As with many of this Summer’s sequels (including a big one next week), this begins with a dramatic flashback, one that takes us back to 1989. John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) is having a romantic “talk’ with his “main” lady Maya (Regina Hall) when a drug kingpin’s hitmen open fire on his car. After the thugs are dispatched, Shaft dashes away into the night leaving the rattled Maya…and his baby son (unfazed by the whizzing bullets, in the back, strapped to his car seat). She breaks things off with John, though he continues to drop off inappropriate gifts (usually in brown paper wrapping or bags) to his son over the years. Intercut with that family montage is John’s journey from cop to private detective (using scenes from the 2000 film). Today John Shaft Jr. (Jessie T. Usher), nicknamed JJ but he could be called “the third”, is a tightly wound, a bit “nerdy”, button-down cybersecurity expert with the FBI in their NYC bureau. A call from his childhood pal Karim (Avan Jogia) leads to a dinner mini-reunion with their mutual friend, Sasha (Alexandra Shipp). When a call makes Karim dash away, JJ catches up to him, concerned that his BFF, a war vet with a drug problem, was using once more. Karim convinces him that all is well before they part. The next morning JJ is awakened by a call from his mother telling him that Karim was found dead of a heroin overdose. But the police reports and blood tests leave JJ with too many questions, so he confronts a drug dealer near the “dicey’ neighborhood where Karim’s body was found. Things don’t go well, so JJ decides to get back-up since the cops and his co-workers believe it to be a standard O.D. case. It’s a “father and child” reunion as JJ reaches out to his estranged pop John. The two try to put aside past family issues and investigate a case that involves a powerful drug cartel working out of a supermarket chain, a possible terrorist cell, and a full-on military conspiracy. Maybe if they two can manage to stay alive, they’ll mend those “broken fences”.
As the new Shaft (with his computer skills, maybe he’s Shaft 3.0), Usher adroitly bounces between somber action mode, grieving friend, and comedic ‘fish out of water”. That’s especially true when he timidly enters a dingy “drug house”. He’s so endearing that we’re fearing for him, then later we’re cheering him on as he gets physical with the baddies (and as he hopes to get “physical’ with Sasha). Most importantly, Usher steps up and becomes a terrific comic partner with Jackson as the “old school” hard a*# who can’t quite beloved that he’s the “fruit of his loins”. This is the rated R raunchy Sam of the Tarantino flicks, not the sometimes surly “family friendly” fellow from the Marvel movies. We can almost see the delight in his eyes as he pelts his clean-cut son with a barrage of “down and dirty’ sex taunts and inquiries (he seems to never be sure if JJ really likes…uh…kitties). When he’s not teasing he’s the master of intimidation breaking a thug’s pinky just after walking straight across traffic without a cautionary glance. But the “hard-boiled” P.I. still has a soft spot for the lady that “got away”, his “baby mama” Maya, played with fire and hilarious fury by the talented Ms. Hall. Though she still seems way too young to have a thirty-something son, she has sizzling chemistry with Jackson, unafraid to go toe to toe with him as he leaps back into her life and destroys a “blind date”. They only share a couple of scenes, but there exchanges truly “crackle”. Adding to the fun is the original Shaft, Richard Roundtree, a “silver fox” who’s still a “master of swagger” as he provides some needed muscle and firepower (plus loads of charisma) for the big third act “throw-down”. Shipp’s a most appealing love interest who’s no mere “damsel in distress” as the lovely Sasha. And kudos to the inspired casting of the frequent film and TV villain Titus Welliver as Usher’s hard-nosed FBI boss.
Director Tim Story keeps the story rolling with a nice sense of style and pacing. And since the crime/mystery plot is the standard stuff on network TV cop shows, he concentrates on the comedy and the character relationships, mainly father and son with a couple of father and mother sequences. Sure, the shoot-out and chases are pulse-pounding, especially in the gritty, grimy NYC locations, it’s that MIDNIGHT RUN-like dynamic between the generations that audiences will remember. But let me restate that this is rated R for raunchy as the PI can often be very un-PC. So thanks to the whole cast, led by Jackson’s go-for-broke, truly committed comic chops, SHAFT is a most entertaining return to that classic crime fighter. Cue that classic Hayes tune..
4 Out of 5