Directed By Tim Story
Starring – Samuel L. Jackson, Jesse T. Usher, Richard Roundtree
The Plot – JJ, aka John Shaft Jr. (Usher), may be a cyber security expert with a degree from MIT, but to uncover the truth behind his best friend’s untimely death, he needs an education only his dad can provide. Absent throughout JJ’s youth, the legendary locked-and-loaded John Shaft (Jackson) agrees to help his progeny navigate Harlem’s heroin-infested underbelly. And while JJ’s own FBI analyst’s badge may clash with his dad’s trademark leather coat, there’s no denying family. Besides, Shaft’s got an agenda of his own, and a score to settle that’s professional and personal.
Rated R for pervasive language, violence, sexual content, some drug material and brief nudity
– R-rated humor. This is the only aspect of the film where the material feels reminiscent to that of the 1970’s origin story, with a rating designation that gives the gags zero boundaries in terms of what it can rightfully access. From this advantage, much of the actors, especially that of Jackson, feels like they are quipping it up and having fun with the spoofing nature of espionage films that often times take themselves far too seriously, and it brought forth a barrage of laughs for me personally that landed around 60% of the time. For my money, the dynamic between gun-heavy father and tech-savy son garners the film’s biggest means for comparison, and brings forth plenty of audience reactions when the two are contrasted side-by-side.
– Slamming soundtrack. Both sides of the musical spectrum, with the intoxicating musical score from composer Christopher Lennertz, as well as the 70’s heavy influence of soul groove R&B, move mountains in their abilities to emit this feeling of fun in the atmosphere that the screenplay often has difficulty replicating, and establishes the importance of a particular track for the perfect feeling within the moment. Aside from the legendary Shaft theme composed by Isaac Hayes, that pops up at the most opportune times in the film, the soundtrack includes a variety of decade heavy favorites like “Get Up Off of That Thing” by James Brown, “Mary Jane” by Rick James, and “Best of My Love” by The Emotions. Each are articulated in their own unique imagining to what is transpiring around it, and each go far beyond the topical sense in mastering why it feels so essential to these sequences.
– Performances. Jackson is easily the highlight of the film for me, gaining the ability to delve into the blacksploitation icon that is John Shaft one more time, and while I feel like his performance feels more like Samuel L. Jackson instead of Shaft, the results are indulging enough to remind us why he is still one of the most charismatic actors working today. The chemistry between he and Usher do effectively balance the feeling of father and son without it ever feeling condemning to the character, and Jackson’s unfazed confidence and super cool swagger puts the age debate on hold at every opportunity given to prove himself once more. Also solid was Regina Hall as the estranged mother of his son. These two are given many scenes to bounce accordingly off of each other, and it leads to a delightfully sinister war of words that still hints at some love beating just beneath the surface.
– A love letter to New York. Setting is especially essential in the world of John Shaft, and this newest film wastes no time in immersing us in the heat of the environment, with some establishing shots that puts us at the pulse of the big apple. In a sense, New York itself is a character in the movie, and what proves this idea is the way that the city imagery or skyline finds its way into nearly every shot that our characters move in and out of frame with, establishing great weight in setting to the film’s conscience that makes it difficult to ever forget. Why this matters so much is because John Shaft is New York and vice versa, and this reflection makes it easier to comprehend why he holds such an advantage over every single one of his opposition, casting an inevitable feeling of doom that practically taps them on the shoulder and reminds them that this bad mother (SHUT YOUR MOUTH) is coming to right the wrongs.
– Easily forgettable. I have nothing personal against Tim Story as a director, but “Shaft” is a constant reminder of why there’s nothing poignant or elusive about his films that make any studio seek him out. This movie gives us nothing new or refreshing in idealism to counteract the tropes and cliches that are practically around every corner in this movie, and balance absolutely no level of urgency to compliment even a shred of dramatic heft to such dangerous stakes. Story’s movements behind the lens are every bit as conventionally bland as they are redundant in evolution, giving away an opportunity in crafting this beautiful hybrid of 70’s grainy visuals with 2019 technology that the film so desperately required in creating even a shred of anything that makes it stand out visually from its 2000 original chapter, or even its 70’s blacksploitation films, which are somehow more alluring than this film.
– Uninspired. Speaking of those 70’s Blacksploitation films, the lack of influence of them in this film wipes away any opportunity for the film to truly capture the atmosphere needed to fully sell its tone or ridiculousness of its title character. I wish films today would experiment more with hokey sound effects or even jumpy editing that could occasionally repeat. The only thing that has come close recently is Quentin Tarrantino’s work in “Death Proof”, and it’s unfortunate that with so much of these aspects of style and scintillation of visual seduction being lost, we fail to properly identify with what kind of film this is accurately trying to convey. With more fun in the film’s cinematography, the production could’ve gained much needed word of mouth to put the butts in the seats, but instead we’re left with a watered down finished product that doesn’t even measure up to the 2000 version in terms of experimentation.
– Hypocritical. Making a John Shaft movie in 2019 is anything but easy. He’s a well known masoganistic character who doesn’t age well with today’s shift in political or entertainment stratospheres, and while the film does attempt to poke fun and outline everything wrong with John’s idealism within his profession, the results are anything but convincing that it’s fully on-board with growing with the times. For one, there’s a subplot involving an Islam group that is of course played for terrorism throughout the film, yet earlier in the first act the same movie mentioned how its cops are anything but racist when it comes to Islam characters. As I said, it says this, and then commits the very same problem that its commentary mentions. Then there’s the female thing with how it portrays women within this world, with a female character mentioning how she’s a real woman, implying she’s too smart to fall into traps, and then she falls into a trap that gets her kidnapped. As usual, the female is the damsel in distress who is only there to kiss the hero at the end, and is another shining example of why this series has come under much controversy within a world that has aged without it. Whether you support this stance or not, some change and surprise is good in films like these, because predictability is the last thing you want in a movie that is a modern day crime noir of sorts.
– Weak antagonists. Second straight review I have mentioned this, and it’s clear that Hollywood doesn’t value what a meaningful villain brings to the psychology of a jaded hero. As is the case with this film, where we get a mystery so easily telegraphed and full of decades old cliches in set-up that the movie practically tells us in the first act. In addition to this, the dialogue within this group feels so unnaturally unnerving that you can practically see the lines within the pages of script that they were typed on. It’s really bad in a movie when the more that a villain talks, the less human they become, and if Shaft was given a villain who felt like anything other than a generic time-filler, then we would see a side of adversity for him to overcome, which would not only feel beneficial to the character’s personal growth but also to us the audience, who would feel more invested in the ways that Shaft must adapt to overcome them.
– By the numbers action sequences. There is nothing of style, substance, or complexity to the film’s action set pieces, which constantly feel like a remote speed bump on the way to more overstuffed exposition between Father and Son. This is Shaft, right? The man who is action first when it comes to his conflicts. Instead, the action sequences are so bland and ineffective in terms of piercing anything eye-catching to us the audience, who are forced to endure sequence after sequence of mundane ammunition exchanges without even a slight hint of creative depth to sell them along the way. One example is in “Deadpool”, a movie with around the same budget as “Shaft”, but uses visual numbers on the bullets fired to articulate to its audience how many shots are left in the merk’s chamber. This is just one example, but something like a Shaft movie should never have problems selling its creativity, but instead it’s just another example of why Story was the wrong man in channeling a new vision for a legendary icon of the ACTION-first spectrum.
– Weak characterization. This is especially prominent with the youthful characters within the movie, who weren’t engaging even in the slightest to this critic. Most of the reason for this is the way they are presented, with John Shaft Jr being so much of an opposite compared to the parental figure we all know and love. We are forced to spend a majority of our time with this character, as he is our visual narrator of sorts, and there’s nothing even slightly intriguing or confirming about his character. We are told frequently throughout that he is this computer genius, but we never get to see this at work besides typical fast-typing that is prominent in every film involving a computer genius. Likewise, his romantic interest (Played by the immensely talented Alexandra Shipp) has these sudden attitude shifts that almost entirely compromise her character set-up as this sweetheart of a girl who has always stood by Junior regardless. She overly dislikes certain characters without even knowing a shred of the backstory behind it, and is depicted as nothing more than the damsel that I mentioned a few paragraphs ago. Weak characters like these diminish positive returns each time Jackson is given a brief break from screen time.
My Grade: 4/10 or D-