Living in the shadow of a legend is tough. Lazing in it can be worse. That goes for people, and if you suspect it also goes for franchises like Shaft, then you’re damn right. For a film built on decades of blaxploitation heritage, Shaft circa 2019 piles on the language, nudity, and more than a few gun-related deaths, but at the end of the day still incredulously feels closer to a ‘70s sitcom than it does grindhouse fun. And there’s no one coming to save you while watching it.
Pitched as a generational action-comedy about old school cool versus new school tool, the second Shaft reboot attempts to prop up the past at the expense of the millennial present via buddy comedy yucks between Samuel L. Jackson’s badass John Shaft and Jessie L. Usher’s cloyingly effete son, John Shaft Jr. (He goes by JJ.) However, director Tim Story’s well-worn vehicle strains with far greater desperation than any scene of Usher failing to “get the pussy” that the film keeps suggesting is his birthright. Consequently, the movie kind of resembles actual scenes of Jackson’s Shaft at the clubs and in the bars: tired and unconvincing.
Set in modern and gentrified New York, Shaft (2019) picks up 30 years after Jackson’s middle-generation of ass-kicking lost his wife due to his violent ways. Caught in the crossfire of one too many shootouts—and opposite one too many CGI de-aged Sam Jacksons—his wife Maya (Regina Hall) took the kid and split decades ago. Thus JJ has grown up without a father and without the proper guiding influence to be “black,” as defined by Papa Shaft. Instead JJ’s turned out to be a skinny jeans-wearing hipster who works for “the Man” at the FBI as an underappreciated data analyst. Not even good enough to be in the field. He likewise pines after his BFF Sasha (Alexandra Shipp), but is too afraid to make a move.
He doesn’t have much of a choice but to move after his and Sasha’s mutual Iraq War veteran buddy turns up dead in a crime scene that looks like a drug overdose that JJ and Sasha suspect is anything but. Marginalized by his pasty-faced, starched collar boss, JJ turns to his private eye father to help investigate the death. John Sr., however, views this primarily as an opportunity to get back in JJ’s life and show him what it means to be a man and not a metrosexual creampuff whose sexuality genuinely worries him. And after Sasha gets kidnapped, it’s a good excuse to also bring in the granddad, the real OG Shaft, played with indispensable good cheer by Richard Roundtree.
The obvious appeal of returning to the Shaft more than 40 years after the original trilogy of films and nearly 20 since the Samuel L. Jackson-led 2000 reboot is of course seeing Roundtree and Jackson in those sleek trench coats and shades again. And they undoubtedly do look fine as hell in them, with Roundtree visibly giddy about reprising his signature role, even when John Shaft the First must constantly be an immovable glacier of unimpressed cool.
Jackson is in fact the real star of the movie, however. Leaning heavy into his star persona that Marvel only faintly taps into, and savoring every possible inflection on the term “motherfucker” like a Shakespearean scholar studying Twelfth Night, Jackson enjoys most of the gags that work—such as discovering his son has a bruised temple and going as a concerned father to find the man who did it and shooting him in the knee. He just wants to be a good daddy, but his way of daddying is kicking ass and trying to get his son laid.
The problem with this “Son of Shaft” setup, about the uncool child of the dude who says “If James Bond was real he’d want to be me,” is that while perfect for a single joke or even five minutes of sketch comedy, it runs thin at nearly two hours. There is just not enough here to fill even a quarter of that. And director Tim Story has little interest in trying, reverting to his standard situational comedy M.O. that wore thin in the Ride Along movies and never caught fire to begin with in those deeply unfunny Fantastic Four flicks from the 2000s. Jackson’s natural charisma and Roundtree’s general amiability are good, but when the script more resembles standard Hollywood formula instead of genuine blaxsploitation innovation, the end result is a picture that’s strangely neutered and about as authentic as the gentrified Manhattan the movie bemoans.
It hardly helps that Usher’s JJ is a perpetual wet blanket. It’s unclear if the fault lies in the young actor or Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow’s lazy screenplay, but JJ Shaft is a sad sack who cannot get his elevator past the first floor. In a rush to present the character as a bundle of millennial stereotypes, the movie lacks the ability to make him likable, even in one of the movie’s few good laughs that comes when JJ begins displaying his genetic Shaft-ness before a slack-jawed Sasha. The script might change its mind about him, but audiences never will. Additionally, the picture’s blatant homophobia in having JJ’s softness setting his father into a constant gay panic would’ve been in poor taste back when Jackson last wore the trench coat about two decades ago.
Shaft (2019) attempts to be a funny ode to the past, but it’s neither funny or understanding of what made that past so awesome. The older Shafts might be bad mothers, but their likely final movie is just bad.