SHAFT movie poster from the 2019 reboot | ©2019 Warner Bros.

SHAFT movie poster from the 2019 reboot | ©2019 Warner Bros.

Rating: R
Stars: Samuel L. Jackson, Jesse T. Usher, Regina Hall, Richard Roundtree, Alexandra Shipp, Isaach De Bankole, Titus Welliver
Writers: Kenya Barris & Alex Barnow, based on the novel by Ernest Tidyman
Director: Tim Story
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Release Date: June 14, 2019

The 2019 film SHAFT is technically a direct sequel to the 2000 film also entitled SHAFT, which also starred Samuel L. Jackson as the title character. That SHAFT was in turn a quasi-sequel to the trilogy of SHAFT films (the 1971 original, which won an Oscar for Isaac Hayes’s indelible theme song, 1972’s SHAFT’S BIG SCORE, 1973’s SHAFT IN AFRICA, plus a brief 1973 TV series), all starring Richard Roundtree.

Jackson and Roundtree are both back as detectives named John Shaft in the new SHAFT, and now there’s a third: JJ, aka John Shaft Jr. (Jesse T. Usher). JJ is the son of Jackson’s Shaft. We see upfront that, in 1989, Shaft got into a shootout with Harlem gangster Gordito (Isaach De Bankole) and his goons. This might be just another night in the neighborhood, except that Shaft’s love Maya (Regina Hall) and their baby son JJ are in the car with him at the time. Maya understandably thinks this is no environment for a child, takes JJ and splits.

SHAFT original movie poster from the 2000 remake | ©2000 Paramount Pictures

SHAFT original movie poster from the 2000 remake | ©2000 Paramount Pictures

In the present, JJ has gotten a degree from MIT and joined the FBI in NYC as a data analyst. When JJ’s childhood friend dies under suspicious circumstances and the authorities are convinced it’s an overdose, JJ briefly tries to investigate on his own. Realizing he doesn’t have the skills for this, he approaches his estranged dad to help look into what happened.

The tone of the new SHAFT is unexpected, until one considers that it’s directed by Tim Story, whose credits include the first BARBERSHOP and the RIDE ALONG film franchise. Furthermore, the script is by Kenya Barris, co-creator of TV’s BLACK-ISH, & his fellow TV writer Alex Barnow. Their expertise is in comedy, and the dialogue has plenty of snap, but what’s most impressive is that they manage to simultaneously celebrate, recreate and tease the ‘70s black action genre. The creative team is particularly on point with the character of Jackson’s Shaft. This is Jackson as the ultimate in cool movie hero, comfortable enough to crack wise and sing along to the radio, yet adept enough to essentially be a superhero without the superpowers (unless one counts incredible aim with weaponry).

Usher’s JJ is the protagonist here, and he’s allowed to be modern and sensitive and scared, yet able to acquit himself in the crunch. Roundtree is used perfectly (there’s even a great joke that rectifies a lame piece of scripting from the 2000 SHAFT). Hall hits exactly the right notes as the irate but still attracted ex/protective mom. Alexandra Shipp is agreeable as JJ’s love interest, and Titus Welliver and Luna Lauren Velez are welcome in supporting roles.

The action sequences are what the ‘70s movies wanted to look like, but didn’t back then have the tech or the resources to achieve. They are tonally perfect and utterly enjoyable.

SHAFT movie poster from the 1971 original | ©1971 MGM

SHAFT movie poster from the 1971 original | ©1971 MGM

SHAFT won’t be confused with a feminist statement, but it treats Hall and Schiff’s characters fairly. It loses a few points for lingering way, way too long on a riff that, while not hostile, is definitely at the expense of gay men. Also, while the casual racism of Jackson’s Shaft is true to attitudes of the ‘70s, and again seems to cause no actual harm, this is probably not a quality that should be held up as part of an enviable persona, even if it’s flagged as dated.

This aside, SHAFT is great fun.

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