This Shaft is technically a sequel to the 2000 film of the same name, the latter being a franchise reboot by the late director John Singleton that was a modest success but not remotely successful enough to actually end up rebooting the franchise.
Instead, Shaft lain dormant for 19 years until this incarnation directed by Tim Story (Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Think Like a Man films), who's certainly no John Singleton but who's made a name for himself directing mostly contemporary Black cinema of the lighter variety.
I've always felt like Story gets a bad rap as a filmmaker. While he's not likely to pick up an Academy Award anytime soon, the vast majority of filmmakers never do and Story, with the right material, produces light audience pleasers such as Barbershop, First Sunday, and the critically bashed but box-office winning Ride Along films. It's only been when studios have felt the need to prove their diversity by putting him in projects outside his areas of expertise that his flaws as a filmmaker, and he definitely has 'em, have risen to the surface faster than the Silver Surfer.
I mean, sure, he's responsible because he took the projects. But, seriously? Who doesn't take a big budget motion picture when it's actually offered?
Anyway, Tim Story is the director of this Shaft. Technically, it's a sequel but it's a thinly related sequel as is pretty much true for all five of the Shaft films and the failed experiment that was the television project. Three films bare the title Shaft, the 1971 original along with Singleton's remake and now this film. There were two other Shaft related films in the 70's, again rather loosely related to the original. Truthfully, Shaft feels more like a brand than an actual franchise.
Singleton's 2000 effort cast Samuel L. Jackson in the title role, an inspired choice given Jackson has pretty much defined the role of "bad motherf***er" for a good majority of his career. He played the role in a fairly straightforward way, a consistency made even more consistent by Singleton's decision to not cater to the black icon's more comedic potential. The 2000 film wasn't necessarily a straight out action flick, but there also wasn't much in the way of self-parody.
Story, on the other hand, nearly denigrates the icon by tapping full-on into the comic potential of Shaft. Jackson returns to the role a full-on 19 years later, but he's lighter, funnier, has a little more swish with the swagger, and if we're being honest feels a little bit less like the badass that we'd expect Shaft to be.
Since that 2000 reboot, Jackson has become a little more willing to play around with his own iconic image. 2006's Snakes on a Plane, despite being only a modest success at the box-office, amped up Jackson's self-parodying self and it's that image of himself that is on full display in this latest version of Shaft. Richard Roundtree, who played the original Shaft then Uncle John in the 2000 Shaft and now plays Shaft's father, is back while Jessie T. Usher is here as third generation Shaft, the boy that Jackson's Shaft pretty much abandoned when he was younger and who has turned into a mild-mannered FBI analyst and who is portrayed as pretty much the anti-Shaft. Regina Hall is here as younger Shaft's mama, whose kickerassery makes you understand why she and Shaft probably hooked up in the first place.
Those who full-on embrace the history of Blaxploitation are likely to loathe this version of Shaft, which offers up more a light skewering of 70's Shaft and never even attempts to take itself seriously. Jackson's Shaft isn't necessarily a joke here, but far more irreverent that before and a lot less prone to taking himself seriously. Jackson dominates the screen here, though if we're being completely honest Shaft is far more about Jackson playing Shaft than it is about Shaft himself or anything resembling a cohesive storyline.
There simply isn't much of a story here. Shaft is about Jackson as Shaft. Fortunately, Richard Roundtree holds his own rather nicely here, while Regina Hall, in a far too small role, is also a perfect badass companion for Jackson. Usher, on the flip side, comes off as far too timid even for his rather timid character, while Isaach De Bankole's attempt to create anything resembling a compelling bad guy mostly falls flat.
If you go into Shaft expecting the Shaft of years past, you'll likely find yourself disappointed with the relatively few action sequences majorly disappointing and the badass Shaft dialed down a few notches into a more contemporary, user friendly Shaft seemingly designed to be more palatable for today's audiences. That said, Story also has a few tonal mishaps and there's some ill-placed misogyny to deal with that feels like a weak attempt to evoke Blaxploitation without fulling understanding Blaxploitation. Singleton understood the difference. Story clearly does not.
That said, taken for what it is this Shaft is a reasonably entertaining endeavor, a frequently funny film that self-parodies without ever becoming a total joke. It's related to its predecessors, yet only loosely and it's rather fun watching 76-year-old Roundtree play father to 70-year-old Jackson.
Somehow, it actually kinda works.
More Shaft than you can handle? I think not. That sounds like a tag line that only a man could dream up. The truth is that there isn't nearly enough Shaft here to truly satisfy, but sometimes a good laugh more than compensates for a little less satisfaction.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic