Review by David Baldwin for Mr. Will Wong
John Shaft Jr. (Jessie T. Usher) works for the FBI as a Cybersecurity Analyst. He has a brilliant mind, but is totally underestimated by his peers. When he starts investigating the suspicious death of his childhood friend, JJ quickly finds himself in over his head with no choice but to turn to his estranged father, legendary Private Detective John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson), for help.
Director John Singleton’s Shaft was the first 14A film I ever went to see in a theatre. I even kept the ticket! And I immediately felt a wave of nostalgia and winking joy the moment Jackson walked onto the screen in Director Tim Story’s newest tale about the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks. The Story does not break new ground or reinvent the character, but it does have a lot of fun allowing Jackson to let loose in one of his signature roles. While some moments are a lot better than others (as are the handful of solidly staged shootouts), the Film strives to be entertaining and a throwback to the kind of Action/Comedy that has practically become extinct.
Even with noting that, it is hard to not notice how very problematic Shaft is as a whole. Beyond choppy editing, not-so subtle reshoots, oddly placed meta-references and a plethora of less than one-dimensional villains, what really holds back Story’s film is how offensive it tends to become. Jackson’s character is indeed the bad mother (shut yo mouth!) you picture in your mind, but he’s also casually racist, homophobic, misogynistic and deeply politically incorrect. He gets called out for some of this behaviour (mostly by Usher’s character), but the majority of it gets brushed off or worse, rewarded. I can understand all of this happening if Story was going for a parody of the Shaft character and Blaxploitation films in general. The Film is indeed outrageous and wildly over-the-top enough to assume this was the initial intention – but somewhere along the line, any inkling of this ideal vanishes and all that is left is an unapologetic movie that would have been better received if it was released 10-15 years ago and not a few years shy of Internet culture becoming woke.
While his Character’s ideals are less than favourable, Jackson has a blast jumping back into Shaft’s shoes again. He gives the Film its energy and many of its laughs, radiating charm and charisma even at his most deplorable. His chemistry with everyone in the Cast is inspired, and he does a fabulous job propping-up Usher’s imbalanced performance. Usher does get to have some fun, but he has trouble carrying the Film on his own, leading to long stretches of just waiting for Jackson to come on-screen and yell “Motherfucker!” again. Supporting turns from Regina Hall, Alexandra Shipp and the original Shaft, Richard Roundtree, are all enjoyable and relatively-amusing. I just wish they all had a bit more to do.
I enjoyed watching Shaft despite its problems. It feels dated and archaic in some instances, but it also revels in the majesty of letting Jackson play that legendary Character again. Some may find that unacceptable, but if you can look past it, you may get some enjoyment out of watching. I just hope you appreciate the Remix of Isaac Hayes’ immortal theme song more than I did.
Warner Bros. Pictures Canada release SHAFT on Friday, June 14, 2019.