Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 18, 2019)
1971’s Shaft made the lead character a cultural icon, one who spawned two sequels and a short-lived TV series. In 2000, a spin-off movie materialized, one that focused on namesake nephew John Shaft II’s adventures.
Rather than go for a formal reboot, 2019’s Shaft essentially continues down the 2000 movie’s path, with the addition of a new role: John Shaft Jr., the offspring of Shaft II. Now in his 20s, Junior (Jessie T. Usher) works as an FBI agent who specializes in cybersecurity.
Shaft II (Samuel L. Jackson) maintained his distance during much of Junior’s life, but when Junior’s pal Karim (Avan Jogia) dies under suspicious circumstances, the pair reunite. Junior needs Shaft II’s street savvy and detective skills to help solve the crime, and the original Shaft (Richard Roundtree) becomes involved as well.
The 2000 Shaft did decently at the box office, but its $70 million US gross apparently left the studio uninspired. How else can we explain the absence of a formal sequel and the 19-year lull in the franchise?
Given the chilly reception accorded the 2019 Shaft, I can’t imagine we’ll see more from the character any time soon. While the 2000 flick’s gross set no box offices on fire, it dwarfs the miserable $21 million taken in by the 2019 version.
I can’t say either the delay between movies or the 2019 flick’s commercial failure bothers me. The 2000 film was badly flawed, and the 2019 edition fares even worse, as this turns into a genuinely awful cinematic experience.
In theory, Shaft 2019 comes with positives. Contrived as it may be, the notion of three generations of John Shafts sounds fun, even if it continues to annoy me that we’re supposed to see Roundtree Shaft as decades older than Jackson Shaft. Sam is only six years younger than Richard, so the age difference doesn’t compute.
That flaw aside, the basic premise offers potential. Alas, the movie never remotely capitalizes on its useful traits, so it winds up as a mix of poor story-telling and various forms of bigotry.
The latter issue becomes the most glaring here, as Shaft feels like a throwback to the 1970s in a bad way via its glaringly un-PC attitudes. I don’t want to go “Social Justice Warrior”, but the movie’s violently “unwoke” attitudes make it an odd fit for the current era.
Make no mistake: Shaft delights in all sorts of concerning attitudes. Misogyny, homophobia, racism and many other forms of bigotry raise their ugly heads, all in the supposed name of entertainment.
If Shaft showed some winking self-referential understanding of its dinosaur ways, it might work. Instead, the film displays no indications that we’re supposed to view the troubling views as anything other than awesome.
Given its fraught nature, I hesitate to use this term, but I can’t think of anything better than “toxic masculinity” to describe the worldview of Shaft. At the film’s start, we get a strong contrast between the violent, cocky Shaft II and the bookish, semi-nerdy Junior.
To some degree, Junior and Shaft II rub off on each other as the movie progresses. Both show different understandings of their universes and change as characters.
This veers way more toward alterations in Junior than in Shaft II. Really, the only way Shaft II “grows” is that he can finally apologize for his past misbehavior.
That’s about it. We find virtually no other indications that his experiences with Junior have softened him or changed his super-macho attitudes.
On the other hand, Shaft relentlessly makes Junior’s “gentrified” ways the butt of jokes, and it allows him to become self-realized only when he’s almost as much of an arrogant pig as his father. There’s no middle ground here, and the film clearly intends us to accept Junior as a “man” only when he displays his pop’s attitudes.
Sorry – I like the introverted, sweet Junior of the film’s first act way more than the self-inflated jerk of the third. We’re supposed to see Junior’s path as progress, but instead, he just turns into more of a caveman.
To call the film’s attitude toward manliness problematic would be an understatement. We learn that Junior has long maintained a crush on his friend Sasha (Alexandra Shipp) but he’s too cautious to do anything about it. Also, Sasha seems to have “friend-zoned” Junior years ago, so she displays little real romantic interest.
All this changes when Junior saves Sasha during a gunfight. Shaft lingers over the violence in a near pornographic manner and displays Sasha’s reactions in a virtually orgasmic way.
Do women like to feel protected by men? Sure, but Shaft revs up this concept to absurd levels and doesn’t allow for any view other than “might makes right”.
Even without the rampant bigotry on display, Shaft doesn’t work simply because it tells its narrative in a confused, rambling manner. In truth, the “plot” about the investigation exists as nothing more than an excuse to link Shaft II and Junior.
It becomes tough to keep straight the various story points, as the filmmakers clearly don’t care. The different elements exist to motivate action and they make little sense in the long run.
As noted, it’s a minor kick to see the three Shafts on-screen together, but that’s the best I can say about the cast. Jackson looks to be on autopilot, and none of the other performers add life to their one-dimensional characters.
Not that Shaft ever wants to be anything other than a crude cartoon. It’s an ugly, unpleasant piece that stinks up the screen.