This is Samuel L. Jackson’s second time around the track as John Shaft, but Tim Story’s movie isn’t a direct sequel to the late John Singleton’s 2000 sequel to/reboot of the original trio of movies from the early seventies. In his first outing, Jackson’s Shaft was the nephew of Richard Roundtree’s older version. Here he’s the son of Roundtree’s Shaft. Which, of course, raises an interesting road not taken: the script could have added the cousin to the mix, with Jackson appearing via split-screen as two John Shafts.
But perhaps that was thought too much of a good thing. So this new “Shaft” is essentially constructed as a father-son tale, with Jesse T. Usher appearing as Jackson’s son John Jr., or JJ. Roundtree also shows up in the last act as the eldest Shaft, still spry enough to get involved in the big final confrontation with the villains. The addition of yet another Shaft might have led to overcrowding.
The movie begins, in fact, with a prologue, a 1989 shoot-out that separates John and baby JJ. It’s an assault on Shaft and his wife Maya (Regina Hall) as they sit in a car with the infant—an attack orchestrated by evil drug lord Carrera (Isaach De Bankolé). Shaft kills the attackers, of course, but the danger leads Maya to go off with JJ, and father and son don’t see one another for thirty years.
By now JJ is a strapping young fellow who’s become an FBI data analyst working under a typically ornery boss (Titus Welliver). He’s grown up fatherless but not friendless, and is close to two childhood pals—doctor Sasha Arias (Alexandra Shipp) and Karin Hassan (Avan Jogia), a decorated army veteran who returned from the war with PTSD and a drug problem that he’s overcome through his work with a volunteer organization called Brothers Watching Brothers, overseen by another vet, Major Cutworth (Matt Lauria) and his helpers Dominguez (Aaron Dominguez) and Williams (Robbie Jones).
When Karin is found dead of an overdose, JJ, certain he was murdered, is determined to investigate, and reluctantly enlists his storied father in the hunt. That gives Jackson what amounts to a second big entrance scene, where his character emerges as a sort of black Archie Bunker, spouting antediluvian remarks about how men should treat women and brutally dismissive of gays and millennials. Among the latter he would include his fastidious son, whom he urges to be a man like himself and treats as though he were a more refined version of Mike Stivic.
But if Shaft is an unreconstructed dick as a person, delivering his constant stream of sexist and homophobic swill, he’s still the most effective private dick on the streets, crushing rule after rule in his pursuit of the villains—which, as JJ comes to realize, include his ultimate quarry, the devilish Carrera. Along the way, however, they must deal with links in a chain that lead to him, including a secretive imam (Amato d’Apolito) and a pugnacious supermarket owner (Luna Lauren Velez).
The movie handles the action elements well enough—even if its treatment of guns borders on the fetishistic. (That’s true not only in the revelation of John Sr.’s armory, which rivals John Wick’s, but in a sequence in which JJ engages in a shootout, demonstrating superb marksmanship despite having earlier described himself as not being a “gun guy.” Shot in slow-motion, the scene glories in the smoking barrels, the bullets flying through the air, the cartridge casings slowly dropping to the floor and, of course, the bodies being riddled with wounds and collapsing. The fact that the movie’s attitude toward women isn’t all that different from Shaft’s, moreover, is demonstrated by the fact that Sasha, until then just a platonic pal of JJ’s, swoons over his dexterity with a pistol.) There’s really nothing new in them, though.
But the background of scripters Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow is in TV sitcoms, and Story has specialized—apart from the “Fantastic Four” movies—in comedies (“Barbershop,” “Taxi,” the “Ride Along” and “Think Like A Man” series), so it’s not surprising that it’s the second part of the “action comedy” format that dominates here. There’s lots of banter between father and son, and Jackson handles it like the pro he is even if the material is coarse; Usher keeps up with him agreeably, and when Roundtree shows up, the humor quotient goes up further. The women, on the other hand, are treated by the makers as cavalierly as they are by Shaft: from her turn here, one would never imagine the excellent work Hall has done elsewhere, and after showing some spunk in the early going, Shipp is eventually reduced to a typical damsel-in-distress. The remainder of the cast play genre stereotypes—Welliver and De Bankolé more than anyone.
The technical side of things is in good hands. Wynn Thomas’ production design manages to substitute Atlanta locations for NYC ones reasonably well (with some establishing shots of the actual Big Apple), and Larry Blanford’s widescreen cinematography is fine, as is Peter S. Elliot’s editing. As one might expect, Christopher Lennertz inserts bits of Isaac Hayes’s original music into the mix, and the opening Warner Bros. logo hearkens back to the seventies too.
As far as modern action comedies go, this isn’t the worst of the bunch, and it gives Jackson another opportunity to strut his stuff and Usher a chance to shine; but it’s still a pretty anemic, in some ways positively misguided, attempt to revive the old franchise. The final shot sets the stage for a sequel, but if one comes, it should do so with an attitude adjustment. Even Archie Bunker mellowed as time went on.