From the beginning, John Shaft was always about fighting for the underdog. In 1971’s blaxploitation classic Shaft, the New York City private detective, played by Richard Roundtree, was an advocate for the disenfranchised, whether those were his Harlem neighbors or the gay bartender at his favorite dive bar. Roundtree’s Shaft got into increasingly ridiculous adventures over the course of three movies in the ’70s, culminating in a misguided attempt to turn him into a sort of black James Bond. But through it all, he kept looking out for the forgotten and exploited. The 2000 incarnation of Shaft, played by Samuel L. Jackson, kept up that tradition, devoting himself to bringing a rich, privileged white murderer to justice.
And yet in the 2019 take on Shaft, Jackson’s character has become a cranky old reactionary ranting about millennials and unleashing a nonstop barrage of sexist and homophobic jokes. Not only is it a tone-deaf betrayal of the entire franchise’s ethos, but it’s also just poor storytelling. The character that Jackson plays in this movie bears almost no resemblance to the character he played in John Singleton’s underrated 2000 crime drama, who was a driven, righteous force for justice. This time, Jackson’s Shaft is inconsiderate and lazy, and he spends half the movie berating his estranged son, John “JJ” Shaft Jr. (Jessie T. Usher), for being uptight and unmanly because JJ respects women and doesn’t use violence as the solution to every problem.
The elder Shaft hasn’t seen JJ in nearly 30 years because JJ’s mother Maya (Regina Hall) didn’t want to raise her son amid the dangers of his father’s line of work. But JJ has grown up to be a data analyst for the FBI, living in New York just like his dad, and when JJ’s childhood friend Karim (Avan Jogia) is found dead under suspicious circumstances, JJ turns to his father for help finding out the truth. Eventually, they also enlist the aid of Roundtree’s senior Shaft, but Roundtree only has slightly more screen time here than he did in the 2000 movie. And despite Usher taking over as the next generation of Shaft, this is really Jackson’s movie; he gets top billing and dominates every scene, barreling over all the other cast members.
But he’s really just coasting on the established Samuel L. Jackson persona, saying “motherfucker” every other word and glaring at everyone around him. It wouldn’t be a surprise to hear him start complaining about the snakes on his plane. Usher does his best to keep up, but JJ ends up as the butt of every joke, at least until he learns to embrace his father’s retrograde conception of what it means to be a man.
Early on, the movie has the potential to be an incisive exploration of generational differences, but the script by Black-ish creator Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow (both veteran sitcom writers) instead goes all in on toxic masculinity, and Jackson and director Tim Story help turn a beloved icon into a crass cartoon. Indifferently plotted, flatly directed and with nothing valuable to say, this version of Shaft comes closer to one of Story’s execrable Think Like a Man movies than it does to Gordon Parks’ progressive classic.