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Legendary crime fighter John Shaft, and the legacy of his 1971 big screen debut have never left the collective consciousness of film fans who love their action with a side of cool. But with a new generation now ready to partake in that history, director Tim Story has prepared an approach quite different than Gordon Parks' original vision, or even John Singleton's reimagining from 2000 .
This time out, a new generation joins the lineage, and comedy is emphasized to provide a fresh perspective. Unfortunately, while all of these ingredients are a welcome change of pace, and lead to a modernization of the Shaft mythos that works better than most projects of similar ilk, there are still some key parts missing that make it hard to completely dig Shaft.
In the first Shaft adventure in nearly 20 years, audiences are introduced to J.J. Shaft (Jessie T. Usher), an FBI agent and cyber-security expert, reuniting with his father, John Shaft II (Samuel L. Jackson) in order to solve the mystery surrounding the death of one of J.J.’s friends. Estranged from his father after his mother (Regina Hall) decided to break things off in the name of safety, J.J. and his dad have very little in common, but finding common ground between their two very different styles and sensibilities could be the key to cracking the case.
The generation gap has always been a sturdy mine for humor, and Shaft does manage to get some solid laughs out of the extreme differences between J.J.’s more millennial tendencies and John II’s leftover politics of a bygone era. Even in the places where the laughs don’t come easy, the charm and chemistry between Usher and Jackson helps add a little oomph to the moment.
Even beyond its two main leads, the entire cast has an energy that surpasses the material given to them in the film’s script. This is especially true when reaching deeper into the roster, and includes Richard Roundtree’s return as the original Shaft - as well as Alexandra Shipp’s Sasha, a best friend and crush of J.J.’s. Everyone gets to do their share of the lifting, and the ensemble work in Shaft is pretty strong, all things considered.
Tim Story’s direction also helps keep Shaft moving, as the film doesn’t ever linger too long in one spot - shuttling through its central narrative at a well-timed clip. At just under two hours, Story finds a rhythm in the narrative. While there’s more of slant towards the comedic, the director’s skills honed on everything from Fantastic Four to Ride Along keep both sides in focus even when one is being emphasized over the other.
This leads to the most upsetting part about Shaft’s finished product, however: the script. Written by Black-ish’s Kenya Barris and The Goldbergs’ Alex Barnow, these are two writers who should have a handle on family dynamic and generational strife, and there’s definitely a solid basis of that work in Shaft. But when you have to mix that with a family that’s been stereotyped as the definition of cool, you need to balance it all out in order to make it work, and Shaft sadly doesn’t.
Furthermore, the central mystery Shaft revolves around is a paint-by-numbers case that anyone can figure out for themselves . There’s no real tension in the mystery, as it’s just kind of a trail of breadcrumbs that lead to an obvious result, and is there simply to push the movie's central character relationship forward. It's definitely not complex enough to be seen as a challenge for one of cinema's most iconic detectives - let along three generations of his family.
The most damning thing about this new update of Shaft is the fact that it makes its characters say how cool they are, rather than letting them simply be cool. Which, as anyone can tell you, isn’t cool. There’s still residual swagger in the Shaft family, with Samuel L. Jackson and Richard Roundtree as cool as ever, and Jessie T. Usher earning his cool stripes in the film. But for every successful one-liner there’s a weak joke about how millennials need to be taught a lesson - and there’s not enough weight for those moments to come off as anything more than older generation ranting.
Shaft is more of a missed opportunity than a dismal failure, as the film plays more as a proof of concept than an actual finished product. Fans of the cast involved will have a lot of fun, even if the expectations set by the legacy of writer Ernest Tidyman and director Gordon Parks’ original films are not fully met.
With the foundation laid down for a potential franchise, it wouldn’t be an unwelcome prospect to see Shaft’s cast unite again for a bigger, more densely plotted bite at the apple. Having all of these pieces in play, and not getting another shot would truly be a crime. But if another film is going to be more of the same, without learning from the missteps that Shaft 2019 has made, it might be best if this cat finally cops out.