The trope of “John Shaft is a dirty old man” is barely enough material to build a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, let alone an entire movie. Yet here we are, the fifth entry in a once-breakthrough series (the third to be titled simply Shaft), and the most we can muster is a sometimes tolerable but mostly forgettable buddy cop action comedy?
There’s so much that could be done with the character’s foundation—a sophisticated detective fueled by righteous anger, combating the destructive forces of corruption, crime, and prejudice all at once. And with a smirking sexuality set against that unstoppable Isaac Hayes-penned theme song, it’s sad to see it all reduced to a “Dad’s horny again” punchline. The earlier films were not great, but they were never phoned in. The fact that this is the successor to the late, great John Singleton’s expectation-defying 2000 reboot is even more disappointing.
You might laugh out loud a few times thanks to the perfect comic timing and chemistry of the cast, who elevate a painfully conventional script and indifferent direction, but that does not make this a good movie any more than a single ghost pepper dropped into a bowl of oatmeal makes it a spicy dish.
In Shaft (2019), JJ (Jessie Usher), an FBI data analyst and son of the long-absent John Shaft II (Samuel L. Jackson) is on the hunt for justice when his friend Karim (Avan Jogia) dies a sudden and suspicious death. With no field experience and even less street smarts, he seeks help from the father he hasn’t seen in decades to infiltrate the shady underworld of international heroin trafficking.
Director Tim Hall’s strength has always been to show what new, underused, or miscast performers can do when given the spotlight. The only problem is the movies themselves usually fail to keep up with the rising star, whether it’s Kevin Hart (Think Like a Man, Ride Along), Regina Hall (Think Like a Man), or Chris Evans (Fantastic Four). But there’s something to say for being ahead of the curve. Strong character moments and funny standalone gags often shine through, and the overall experience is a pleasant one. Then come the sequels—Ride Along 2, Think Like a Man Too, and Rise of the Silver Surfer—where charm alone can’t overcome the feeling of an overstayed welcome. Shaft (2019) cuts right to the sequel stage, feeling redundant almost as soon as the opening credits start (a fact that is not helped by reusing footage of Singleton’s film, showing the drastic downgrade in production value).
It is always a pleasure watching Regina Hall and Samuel L. Jackson work, and their chemistry needs to be recreated as soon as possible in a better movie. Usher is fun as JJ, but the way he turns from a conflicted, driven FBI agent to a wisecracker is way too sudden, and his jokes feel pulled from a different movie. Alexandra Shipp has room to be more than JJ’s love interest; watch out for much more from her. Other than that, there are a few good laughs, a couple of solid chuckles, but a whole lot of wondering why this throwaway comedy bothered to bear the name Shaft.
Shaft / R, 111 minutes / Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056, drafthouse.com/charlottesville z Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213, regmovies.com z Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000, charlottesville.violetcrown.com z Check theater websites for listings.
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