Even in a summer that’s already been marked by soulless callbacks pandering to established fanbases (Aladdin, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Dark Phoenix, Men in Black International, etc.), 2019’s Shaft might be the most egregious. The sequel to 2000’s Shaft which is itself a sequel to 1971’s Shaft (certainly not an inventive title, but still head and shoulders above the “Son of Shaft” label the project had been saddled with for years), this time around hard-boiled blaxploitation gives way to lazy broad comedy, with achingly exasperating results. Director Tim Story (whose last, and arguably only, interesting movie was 2002’s Barbershop) brings his signature brand of corny, laugh-free gags to the renowned bad mother-SHUT YO’ MOUTH.
Even if you haven’t caught any of the other four movies or the short-lived TV series, the hurried montage that opens the story is designed to get you up to speed. John Shaft II (Samuel L. Jackson) followed in the family business of being a smooth-talking private detective who doesn’t play by the rules, and a failed assassination attempt in 1989 kept him from settling down with Maya (Regina Hall) and their infant son. Cut to present day, where the son, John Shaft III (Jessie Usher) is now a straight-laced data analyst for the FBI who enlists the help of his estranged father to track down his best friend’s killer in the seedy underbelly of Harlem. Oh, and as the movie does what it can to shoehorn its (and I’m going to use the word extremely loosely here) plot into the continuity of the overall mythology of the extended Shaft universe, Richard Rountree is brought in for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, second thought cameo in the legendary role he originated, as Jackson’s father despite being only six years older than him.
To put it lightly, the character of John Shaft has not aged particularly well (or well at all, for that matter) and screenwriters Kenya Barris (Girl’s Trip, Black-ish) and Alex Barnow (The Goldbergs, Mr. Sunshine) appear to be violently opposed to doing anything that might update his toxic ideology for 2019. Samuel L. Jackson spends the film’s painfully lengthy runtime spewing a cranky, ignorant wave of misogyny and homophobia (there’s a tired running joke about giggling at the name of a veteran support group, Brothers Watching Brothers, because it sounds vaguely suggestive), to the point where if the script was remotely self-aware it would probably actually work as a biting satire of bigotry. Jessie Usher is brought along as the socially-minded Millennial foil to Jackson’s tells-it-like-it-is oldtimer, but only so he can serve as the feeble, overly idealistic butt of every joke for “talking white,” understanding computers, and being an all-around “pussy.” We’re all left to sit there and cringe as the film continues to over-romanticize the ‘good old days’ of rampant, regressive narrow-mindedness, rather than rightly viewing the character as the product of a bygone era.
But, believe it or not, that’s just the beginning of the films problems. It proves to be the worst type of movie: a dull comedy seemingly devoid of any clever material. There was no real reason to try and rebrand Shaft as a comedic character in the first place. The original had its share of dopey one-liners and schlocky campiness, but it was always first and foremost a crime caper. Here, the action comes as an afterthought, if at all. Instead, anything that isn’t a one-note, gross-out gag or a mean-spirited, problematic slur gets resigned to the backburner. Playing it all for laughs misses nearly all of the gritty immediacy that put the franchise as the forefront of blaxploitation cinema. While the newfound playful energy works to liven up the tired action formula a bit, even the occasional stinger gets lost in the wave of misfires.
Retro in all the worst ways imaginable, Shaft fails to clear even the embarrassingly low bar it sets for itself. It’s an outdated comedy with no laughs, a haphazard mystery that’s never less than five steps behind its audience, and a would-be summer seat-filler that zaps any and all charisma out of even well-established stars. There’s far more time and energy devoted to blatant product placement than there is anything resembling character development. Shaft is a dull cash grab that doesn’t even bother to hide behind entertainment as it slinks by on name recognition alone. At times it manages to cough up some of that cozy familiarity that most standard-issue wide releases do this time of year, but it isn’t nearly enough to keep viewers from checking their watches all throughout the two-hour runtime. Stripped of its sexuality, action, and what little consideration the series threw toward social issues, Shaft is a painful reminder of how slowly the wheels of progress truly move.