Shaft. The name conjures up images of the classic blaxploitation hero, in a turtleneck and leather coat with jumbo lapels, walking along 42nd Street to the tune of the irresistible Isaac Hayes theme song: “Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?” “Shaft!” chime the back-up singers. “You’re damn right.” Shaft is cool, stylish, and confident. Which is to say that he is everything that the new Shaft isn’t. With its groaner jokes and TV-pilot production values, the new film makes the last attempt at updating the character to contemporary action-hero tastes (in 2000’s Shaft, directed by the late John Singleton) look downright old-school. And its identity crises go a lot deeper than the title it confusingly shares with two earlier films.
Reprising his role from the Singleton movie, Samuel L. Jackson stars as John Shaft II, the nephew or son (more on that confusion later) of the take-no-shit Harlem detective played by Richard Roundtree in two hit movies (Shaft, Shaft’s Big Score), one box office flop (Shaft In Africa), and a short-lived TV series back in the ’70s. In the 2000 film, Jackson’s Shaft quit the NYPD to follow in his namesake’s footsteps as a private investigator. He’s still at it in the new Shaft, working out of a dumpy rented office in which the built-in bar is conspicuously better organized than the filing cabinet.
That the onetime “new” Shaft should become something of an anachronism is one of the more intriguing ideas in the script (by Black-ish creator Kenya Barris and fellow TV comedy veteran Alex Barnow). Jackson was already in his 50s—which is to say, way too old for the role—when he starred in Singleton’s Shaft. Now that the actor is in his 70s, his Shaft, with his Grecian Formula goatee and protruding belly, might even cut a pathetic figure. He’s never learned how to use a computer, but he’s still playing the lothario, still hitting the clubs, still speeding around Manhattan in an overcompensating muscle car.
But Shaft never gets to that kind of distance from the character, even though its plot hinges on what might otherwise count as a monumental personality flaw. Shaft, it turns out, is a deadbeat dad, having effectively abandoned his hitherto unmentioned son, John Shaft Jr. (Jessie T. Usher), some 30 years ago. Raised by his mother, Maya (Regina Hall, in a largely thankless role), John Jr. has grown up to be everything his father wasn’t. He’s polite, overachieving, and can’t stand guns. What’s more, he’s landed himself a cushy job as a computer specialist at the FBI, which is about as “working for the Man” as it gets. And though even his bosses can’t stop calling him “Shaft” (because who can resist that name?), he prefers to go by “JJ.” But when JJ’s best friend turns up dead under suspicious circumstances, he comes knocking at his old man’s door.
Considerably jokier in tone than any of its predecessors, Shaft plays like a cross between a raunchy family sitcom and a mismatched-buddy movie in the vein of director Tim Story’s earlier Ride Along and Ride Along 2. But though the film periodically stumbles into a funny sight gag (like the initial reunion of Shaft and JJ), most of the laughs it scores have less to do with timing or mutual chemistry than with the volume of its stars. Usher plays the ass-clenching priss, while Jackson turns Shaft into, well, a loudly profane Samuel L. Jackson role. His un-PC gumshoe can’t stop going off on screeds about millennials, tight pants, coconut water, and the good old days when men didn’t need permission for anything. If Singleton’s Shaft was partly the product of post-Tarantino nostalgia for the badassery of blaxploitation, Story’s seems to pine for the ’80s and ’90s heyday of action heroes who could blow away stereotypical bad guys, drop a one-liner, and get laid without anyone asking too many questions.
But Shaft doesn’t have a classic action movie’s muscle, or the attitude of its blaxploitation forebears, despite its trying quotations of the long instrumental intro of Hayes’ Oscar-winning theme. The original 1971 Shaft, directed by the former photojournalist Gordon Parks, was part of the first wave of Hollywood movies to venture into the streets of American cities in full color. The hero was larger than life and the plot was formulaic, but the movie treated its realness like a special effect. Shaft swaggered past newsstands, movie theaters, and shops selling sex and shoes. He ate hot dogs at a real Times Square lunch counter and jaywalked through honking downtown traffic, exhaling big puffs of breath vapor in the Manhattan cold. The new Shaft, in contrast, was shot in Atlanta (doubling unconvincingly for New York City), though it might as well have been set in a vacuum, with its flat lighting and limited assortment of cheap cop-show locations.
It doesn’t help that the plot is a mess, awkwardly juggling heroin smugglers, a shadowy villain from Shaft’s NYPD days, a romantic subplot involving JJ’s childhood friend (Alexandra Shipp), a redemption arc, and assorted tone-deaf attempts at real-world relevance: troubled veterans, the ’80s drug epidemic, Islamophobia. For a movie that badly needs the audience to know that it’s winking at some of the phonier conventions of the genre, Shaft seems overly concerned with saying something, but puts in minimal effort. (The subplot involving the mosque frequented by JJ’s best friend is probably the most embarrassing example.) And that’s before it throws Roundtree’s original-flavor, cane-sugar, glass-bottle Shaft into the mix. Continuing the paternal theme, Shaft retcons the character. Previously introduced as John Shaft II’s uncle, he is now referred to as his biological father—which is quite the twist, considering that Roundtree is only six years older than Jackson.
But then, does anyone going into Shaft expect strict adherence to the continuity of this not-quite-franchise? Unsurprisingly, Roundtree ends up effortlessly stealing the few scenes he’s in, underplaying the kind of punchlines his co-stars deliver with exclamation marks. Which points to the real problem with Shaft and its cranky, ranting private eye hero. Among all the cardinal sins of moviemaking it commits (up to and including reusing an iconic needle drop from a Martin Scorsese movie), the worst is this: It makes Shaft look uncool.