Movies

The long-time coming Shaft sequel should have waited even longer, maybe, like, forever

Shaft returns after a nearly 20-year hiatus with a new hatred for coconut water and a closet full of vintage ’70s turtlenecks. Tim Story’s humbly titled Shaft, a belated multigenerational sequel to John Singleton’s more playful reimagining of the blacksploitation franchise, has distressingly little to offer to justify its existence, essentially serving as a banal Muzak cover of Isaac Hayes’ iconic theme. The new version does, however, rewrite its predecessor’s family tree, which made Richard Roundtree’s eponymous private dick the uncle to then-new star Samuel L. Jackson’s John Shaft 2.0 — this time they’re father and son, although the actors are all of six years apart.

Jackson, looking virtually unchanged from his last outing despite pushing 70, is watchable enough as the Harlem-based detective with unorthodox methods, politically incorrect views and a penchant for casual sex. If there was more going on in Black-ish creator Kenya Barris and Family Guy writer Alex Barnow’s pedestrian script, you might think it was a riff on Jackson’s penchant for projects that line his coiffures but otherwise don’t stretch his range — but one quickly gives up on subtext.


A “wasted” Regina Hall.

Warner Bros. Pictures/Kyle Kaplan

At best, Shaft’s stubborn sameness just makes him an easy foil for the film’s real hero, his 20-something son J.J. (Jessie Usher), a prim and proper MIT grad now working as a low-level FBI cybersecurity analyst who’s never had his father’s flair for field work. First glimpsed as a baby in the clunky 1989-set opening moments, which show us that Shaft Sr. became estranged from his wife (Regina Hall, wasted) and newborn son when his work made him a public target for Harlem crime bosses, J.J. has to learn how to come into his own as both a detective and a man with a little help from his dad.

Shaft and J.J.’s painfully unfunny father-son misadventures feel weirdly out of sync with the seriousness of their mission. They investigate the seemingly accidental overdose of J.J.’s childhood friend, an idealistic war veteran in recovery from his opiate addiction. Further complicating matters are his ties to a mosque whose Imam may or may not be radicalizing young men. For all its conservative inclinations when it comes to things like sexuality and guns, the franchise has usually sympathized with the marginalized and oppressed sorts that Shaft has had to paint outside of the lines of the law to help. But Story’s heart doesn’t seem to be in the good fight this time, and J.J.’s efforts to clear his friend’s good name barely register beyond the first act. Nor does Story have any visual panache when it comes to the shoot-outs, which suggest any number of generic action movies with slow-motion, CG-aided sequences of bullets cutting through flesh and bone.

A mash-up of bad action, inert family drama and muddled commentary on hot-button issues is par for the course throughout Shaft’s one-hour and 51-minute runtime. Story’s refusal to commit to any one story worth telling becomes especially galling in his half-hearted efforts to turn Shaft’s time capsule wardrobe and old-school beliefs into a larger statement on the generational tension between millennials and boomers. Though the marketing campaign for the movie has forged ahead in this direction, with posters of Shaft dismissing everything from almond milk to avocado toast, the joke runs its course early on, somewhere around the second reference to modern youth and their apparently frivolous ideas about gender and pronouns.

If the point is that sometimes the old ways are better than the new, you have to wonder why the film looks like any other forgettable contemporary action comedy with a ‘70s filter occasionally slapped on, even in the decades-spanning opening credits montage. For all its bluster and all its desperation to be seen as both edgy and old-fashioned at the same time, Shaft doesn’t seem to have anything to say about either grumpy dads or kids these days that you couldn’t fit on a poster.

Although its hero is defined by his most distinctive traits — his silver-tongued vulgarity, his leather trench — all the third movie called Shaft has to its credit is its almost impressive sameness. It’s as derivative as the family name.

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