I'm not entirely sure how we got to the 2019 version of Shaft. The 1971 original is a Blaxploitation classic about a tough-as-nails, no-nonsense private eye. Two sequels followed. In 2000, Samuel L. Jackson took over for Richard Roundtree in John Singleton's reboot. Same general tone, with a modern star who embodied some of the same traits. Now, nineteen years later, Shaft is back, again played by Jackson. But the movie is – for all intents and purposes – a comedy. It's not a catastrophic shift in tone, although it does ensure that Shaft doesn't feel like a Shaft picture.
Actually, the lead character is JJ Shaft (Jessie T. Usher), the son of Shaft and his ex, Maya (Regina Hall). Father and son have long been estranged, thanks to Maya not wanting JJ to be negatively influenced. Nevertheless, when his good friend is murdered, JJ asks his dad for help figuring out who did it. Alexandra Shipp co-stars as Sasha, JJ's childhood friend/love interest, and Roundtree pops up toward the end as grandpa Shaft (i.e. the one from the original).
The main drawback with Shaft is not the humor, it's the plot. The mystery is dull and needlessly confusing. It entails a veterans charity and, of course, massive amounts of narcotics. Nothing about the story is in any way inspired. In fact, it often feels as though running on autopilot, marching viewers through a familiar series of clues, red herrings, and “shocking” discoveries.
Shaft's comedic approach doesn't feel well-suited to the character, yet it at least produces some fun. Jackson, in particular, is clearly having a good time tossing off non-stop quips and insults. Usher and Roundtree cheerfully join in the loose, freewheeling nature. Hall does, too, having Maya give Shaft some hilarious slow-burn reactions once she discovers he's hanging out with their kid. Writers Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow obviously spent more time crafting jokes than a plot. Still, they come up with some sharp lines of dialogue and character exchanges. Shaft, at one point, asks the uptight JJ, "What kind of business could your Don Lemon ass have in my world?"
The action scenes are so-so. Not bad, nothing we haven't seen before. All in all, Shaft is just kind of a weird movie. Once you accept that it's going to be a comedy, there's some pleasure to be found in the performances and jokes. We automatically expect something very different from a John Shaft adventure, though. Not having a stronger, more serious plot means the film will likely appeal more to Shaft newbies than to Shaft devotees.
Shaft comes to Blu-ray and DVD on Sept. 24. Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided a complimentary copy of the Blu-ray for the purposes of this review.
There are some decent supplemental goodies on the disc. “Can Ya Dig It?” is a 10-minute making-of feature that takes us behind the scenes. Cast and crew interviews are here, and you'll find some fun facts about how the creative team approached the character in 2019.
“A Complicated Man: The Shaft Legacy” is a comprehensive three-part documentary about the character's cinematic history, from the '70s through now. Considering that John Shaft has had long-lasting pop cultural significance, this is a valuable look at his origins and the ways in which he's transformed over the years.
Also here are a couple inconsequential deleted scenes, plus an amusing 5-minute gag reel with the actors cracking each other up. A digital copy of Shaft is also included in the pack.
out of four
Shaft is rated R for pervasive language, violence, sexual content, some drug material and brief nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 51 minutes.