Shaft (2019) is the story of two Shafts. The first is John Shaft II (Samuel L. Jackson), the infamous ex-cop turned private investigator who has a penchant for disregarding the rules and dispensing justice in his own way. The second is JJ (Jessie Usher), Shaft’s son from his former marriage to Maya (Regina Hall). JJ’s life path has led him to grow distant from his father, and he now works as a data analyst for the FBI living a relatively straight-laced life. When JJ’s best friend dies under curious conditions, he turns to Shaft for help to figure out what really happened.
What works in Shaft (2019) is balance. The original iterations of Shaft were over-the-top action fests that also featured a heavy amount of misogyny, racially-charged material, and taboo activity (for the time). Shaft (2000) (which serves as a light predecessor to this film), attempted to incorporate these themes and characteristics through a dramatic story of justice. Shaft (2019) uses another approach entirely—lampooning. This is not to say the film makes light of some of the serious issues facing our culture society today, but taking the “did you seriously just say that?!” approach works incredibly well by allowing Jackson to be hilariously offensive while the rest of the characters continually try to correct his antiquated ideals. Make no mistake—Shaft (2019) is both poignant and raucously funny.
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Shaft (2019) succeeds in striking the right tone thanks in part to the right mix of characters. Perhaps the MVP is Hall, whose character has some of the best lines and moments in the script. One particularly memorable scene of hers involves a bunch of quick edits of Maya talking to a mirror, psyching herself up for a confrontation, and it is comedic gold. Her no-nonsense (but still rather sensible) attitude and handling of Shaft puts him in his place on more than one occasion. Also adding to the proceedings is Usher, who at first feels like an easy target as a geeky millennial for Shaft’s quips, but he ends up being a great audience surrogate and realistic foil to his father’s unique style.
While Shaft (2019) succeeds as a laugh-out-loud comedy, it does suffer from narrative issues especially as they relate to the antagonists. On paper, the twists, turns, and misdirects in Shaft (2019) are likely quite clear, but cinematically what starts out as an intriguing mystery quickly becomes befuddling. The motivations of the villains are confusing at best, and it’s easy to lose track of the connections between certain characters. Relatedly, director Tim Story has opted to focus on a tight script with strong, sharp dialogue rather than lengthy exposition or flashy action sequences. To this end, the shoot-em-up moments play second fiddle to jokes which will highly entertain most, but Shaft purists may feel this creative decision makes Shaft (2019) strays too far away from the source material.
Shaft (2019) is a fascinating film because it takes a rather defunct franchise and breaths new life in it by truly justifying its existence. Even in an age where nearly everything unceremoniously gets a direct sequel, Shaft (2000) seems like an odd pick for story continuation. But Shaft (2019) is the rare instance that takes an old idea and revitalizes it with a fresh, modern spin. Jackson’s comedic timing is just so good, and the script is so sharp, watchers will quickly realize that this is a movie they never knew they needed.
Recommended if you enjoyed: Lethal Weapon, Barbershop: The Next Cut, Girls Trip
FINAL GRADE: A-
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