7 out of 10
Samuel L. Jackson as John Shaft II
Directed by Tim Story
New Shaft is like New Coke (for those old enough to remember New Coke, which should be the same people old enough to remember Shaft). It’s the same basic packaging and the same basic ingredients but it has been remixed just enough that if you take a big swig expecting the classic version, you’re going to spit it out. Following in the footsteps of other recent nostalgia sequels, Shaft makes sure to flaunt its connections to the past (primarily the Samuel L. Jackson iteration from 2000). And yet bizarrely, bravely and (mostly) successfully, it also abandons a good bit of what has made Shaft Shaft in the past in an attempt to tell some kind of new version of a Shaft story: the coming of age story.
Returning to the role after 19 YEARS, Jackson is still John Shaft, son of John Shaft (Roundtree) and father of John Shaft (Usher). But it turns out being a great private dick who’s a sex machine with all the chick’s makes for being a terrible father, leaving Shaft, Jr. to be raised by his mother (King) and estranged from Shaft, Sr. At least he was until his childhood friend turns up dead on a Harlem street and he needs his dad’s help to find the killer. Mixing like oil and water, Shaft version 1 and 2.0 (actually I guess 2.0 and 3.0) have to bridge the gap between them if they’re going to have any chance at finding justice.
The biggest and most obvious difference right off the bat is that new Shaft is funny. (Or at least it tries to be funny, and succeeds more often than not). It’s always a good thing when a franchise changes its ways, even when it’s bad. It’s easy to be cynical and say it’s to capture a new viewer without understanding of how the series as worked, but sometimes that opens up wonderful new facets of a series no one knew existed. Shaft has always been more than a little self-serious while also being more than a little campy (at least in the 70s version) which is a tough juggling act to keep up. John Singleton’s version dropped the camp for more straight ahead crime flavor in a steady PG-13 summer action blockbuster. New series director Tim Story (Fantastic Four) drops the crime for gags and relationship drama as Shaft, Jr. learns to give up his skinny jeans and coconut milk and embrace his inner shaft. It’s a new bent for an old series and that alone gets bonus points. Sure some might question why a coming-of-age story, which is normally most popular among younger audiences, has been bolted onto a bawdy, hard R-rated action-comedy but I say let’s focus on the positives.
Story knows his way about around a good gag – his strengths have always been more to comedy than action – and the script by Kenya Barris (Black-ish) and Alex Barnow offers him plenty of opportunities to show that off, especially when Jackson gets to lean into Shaft’s self-conception of his own greatness. It does make for a jarring transition as Jackson’s Shaft must transform from a righteous defender of the people to a sex-fiend with little on his mind but partying and old debts. Sure it feels a little precious, a mechanism to allow the filmmakers to grab the low hanging fruit of the generation gap between millennials and baby boomers. On the other hand it has been 19 YEARS since the last Shaft film so it’s not like there’s a ton of continuity to hang onto or a cry for the old ways of doing things.
If it has a weakness (and to be fair it has a few) it’s that Usher is not up to sharing the screen with Jackson. Or at least the conception of Shaft Jr. isn’t. He is less of a character and more of a collection of perceived millennial character traits wrapped up by a string of parental disgruntlement. He’s there to be by turns angry at Shaft and horrified by his actions – basically one half of every buddy cop film ever made. When he gets away from Jackson and gets a rare scene with his friends or Shipp, his long-time crush who wants to help on his investigation, Usher’s own charisma starts to come through and Shaft, Jr. gets a lot more interesting. Whenever Jackson shows back up again he gets blown off the screen.
It’s easy to forget about, or at least pass off, until King returns as Shaft, Jr.’s mother/Shaft’s estranged ex, about halfway through and instantly has better scenes with Jackson and does a better job as the straight-laced buddy cop than anything Usher manages.
Most of what else ails it is pretty standard for the genre. The crime story is a cover given lip service in order to make room for the comedy and character bits; the villain is barely visible and makes what is theoretically the primary conflict impossible to care about. The character arcs are predictable and a lot of the jokes are easy enough that they become unfunny. On the other hand, it’s a new way to approach an old character and it tries harder to give its main characters something to do than a lot of its colleagues do, and there is something worthy in that.