FBI computer analyst J.J. Shaft (Jessie T. Usher) re-unites with a lifelong friend – an army veteran and recovering addict named Karim (Avan Jogia) – only for Karim to turn up dead in Harlem from a drug overdose. Suspecting foul play, J.J. calls up the one private detective he knows: his father John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson), who abandoned him when J.J. was a baby.
The first Shaft film was released in 1971, and was pretty much the highest-profile work of the USA’s ‘blaxploitation’ movement, released in the vanguard of that movie following Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Richard Roundtree played the titular private detective – a white man in the original novel – and the film’s blend of sex and violence, aggressive masculinity, and well-targeted blackness made it a commercial hit and a cultural landmark. Two sequels followed – Shaft’s Big Score (1973) and Shaft in Africa (1974) – and a brief TV adaptation, and then a soft reboot in 2000. That film, also titled Shaft, was directed by John Singleton and starred Samuel L. Jackson as Shaft’s son John Shaft Jr.
Last year Paramount Pictures produced a third film named Shaft, a same-titled sequel of a same-titled sequel, but then promptly dropped its international release in favour of on-selling the production to Netflix. It’s a strategy employed when the studio is unconvinced a film is going to be profitable hit in cinemas. In the case of something like Alex Garland’s Annihilation the shift to Netflix seemed like an acknowledgement of its less-than-commercial nature. In the case of Shaft, it has simply been dumped the same way that late 20th century films would be unceremoniously dumped direct to VHS – the film simply is not any good.
There was a moderate achievement made in John Singleton’s 2001 Shaft in updating and re-working the original concept for a modern-day context. The film was dominated by issues of race and class, and Samuel L. Jackson’s version of the character was presented in a appreciably less sexist and sex-focused fashion. Sadly there is no equivalent process within Tim Story’s 2019 effort. Here Jackson is re-framed as a sleazy lothario, with numerous ongoing affairs with women decades younger than him and filled to the brim with exactly the kind of outdated, lazy stereotypes that his previous turn avoided. Now this approach could work and be genuinely funny, but everybody involved is coasting on the concept. The easiest, least interesting jokes are applied, and Shaft is turned from cool detective to sleazy old man.
J.J. is presented as a sharp contrast to all of this, of course, with his sensitivity and Gen-Y tastes framed as both feminine and weak. Put simply, it is a relatively ugly presentation to watch. You could overlook it, but there is little else to the film to make one bother. This is a waste of Samuel L. Jackson’s time and talent, as well as that of Regina King; under-used but punching above her material as John’s ex-girlfriend and J.J.’s mother.
There is also a weird change between sequels, in which Jackson’s Shaft has moved from being the nephew of the original to being his son. It is odd that the makers of the film expected no one to notice – unless this Jackson Shaft is actually the cousin of the 2000 version. In a better movie the audience might have cared.
The 1971 Shaft was part of a broad social movement. The 2000 Shaft re-developed the concept to actually tell a contemporary story about race. The 2019 Shaft is a bundle of sexual innuendos wrapped around a deeply ordinary story of drug smugglers and gun-toting gangsters. It could be adapted to any irregular action franchise, and still head directly to Netflix anyway. This is lowest acceptable standard fare: filler for a streaming film catalogue, but both easily ignored and best avoided.