FILM REVIEW – SHAFT. With Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie T. Usher, Richard Roundtree, Regina Hall, Alexandra Shipp. Written by Kenya Barris & Alex Barnow. Directed by Tim Story. Rated R for pervasive language, violence, sexual content, some drug material and brief nudity. 113 minutes.
The new SHAFT walks a tightrope in wanting to be both an action comedy and yet be respectful to the early ’70s series starring Richard Roundtree and the 2000 reboot with Samuel L. Jackson. It works, but it’s a movie where the action and the comedy are more important than the plot or any notion of strict continuity with the earlier films.
John Shaft, Jr. (Jessie T. Usher), is a data analyst with the FBI. When an old friend dies under mysterious circumstances, he reaches out to his father John Shaft (Jackson) who he has not seen since infancy. The father is an ex-cop turned private detective who likes to party, drive fast, and shoot things up, not necessarily in that order. Junior is much more strait-laced and yuppiefied, for which Senior blames his ex-wife (Regina Hall).
Part of the comedy is the “odd couple” nature of father and son, and part of it comes from when Junior – a college graduate who insists he doesn’t like guns – proves to have some unexpected talents. Things get ratcheted up in the third act with the arrival of the original Shaft (Roundtree), which turns the story into a family reunion. Apparently, the family that busts up drug lords together stays together.
The humor may occasionally be subtle (as in a reference to how Roundtree was identified as Jackson’s uncle in the 2000 film but is now his father, even as the two actors are only six years apart in age). However, that’s the exception to the rule. Much of it is raunchy or slapstick or both. When Junior first meets his father, he’s greeted by a half nude woman, and when dad shows up it’s pretty clear what was being interrupted.
What the original “Shaft” films represented were the emergence of a black action hero who called the shots and who was as virile and sexy as, say, James Bond. Jackson and Usher put their own spins on the character, but when we see the three of them together it’s clear that they respect what they’ve inherited even as they take it in new directions. It’s a lot of fun for those who understand the sex (mostly talked about) and violence (shown repeatedly) are taking place in movie fantasyland, and not to be taken literally. This is not for the easily offended or the overly squeamish.
“Shaft” may not relaunch a franchise, but this one takes its audience on a fast-paced ride.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.