Run time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Stars: Samuel L. Jackson, Richard Roundtree, Jessie T. Usher, Regina Hall
Director: Tim Story
No. 1 box office star Samuel L. Jackson, 70, struts his obstreperous stuff as private detective John Shaft in Hollywood's oddest trilogy: three movies all called Shaft — not Shaft 1, 2 and 3 — two starring Jackson. (Several other, less significant sequels had other names.) Director Gordon Parks’ 1971 original starring Richard Roundtree gave the gumshoe genre an original jolt and served as a central influence on Quentin Tarantino's career. Thanks to Shaft, the first major black director got his first hit and theme composer Isaac Hayes became the third black Oscar winner ever.
In John Singleton's 2000 sequel (again called Shaft), Jackson took the part of the sleuth who won't cop out as a sex machine to all the chicks, with Roundtree, 76, as his elder relative. The film mostly misfired, marred by creative strife between Jackson, white writer Richard Price and Singleton, who defied Price's Jackson-enraging rewrites by adding back zingy Shaft lines like, “It's my duty to please the booty.” But Jackson's Shaft update solidified his reputation. Critic Roger Ebert wrote, “Jackson has a way of bringing weight to his roles. He always looks like he means it."
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Billions of dollars of hits later, Jackson, now Hollywood's top-dog elder statesman, plays Shaft like he's just messing with us, having a blast without giving a rip, doing his standard, ever-fun Sam Jackson routine, on top of the world. This time, the bad guys aren't very scary, just props for target practice — their gunshot wounds don't seem to hurt, only their pride. There's gunplay and barely enough narrative tension to keep you going, but the real action is the intergenerational bonding of three Shafts. Roundtree is back again as the eldest, and now Jackson's Shaft has a son, JJ Shaft (Jessie T. Usher), who needs his elders’ help to find who killed his pal — Harlem drug dealers? A mosque that might be a terrorist front? A support group for suspiciously nervous war vets?
Jackson's glee is catching as he razzes his MIT-grad FBI tech-whiz kid for his uptight, law-abiding, non-N-or-MF-word-using ways, with Roundtree's original-gangsta Shaft tossing in a quip now and then. JJ was raised by the take-no-guff ex-Mrs. Shaft (Girls Trip's Regina Hall, 48), so he's utterly un-street: the kids in Harlem mistake him for an Apple Store guy. Shaft is shocked at his son's crimes against his kind of unapologetic manliness. JJ is shocked at his dad's crimes against political correctness and common sense. Shaft is appalled that JJ is a deadeye shot, but hates guns — and he's a cat who's shy with chicks! “It's your duty to please the booty,” lectures Shaft, who bought him condoms for his 10th birthday. Eyeing JJ's tidy nattiness, Shaft demands, “What kind of business could your Don Lemon ass have in my world?”
JJ does have serious business. He needs help tracking down a bad guy in the Harlem mean streets Shaft knows well, but the drug dealers about to get Shaft-whupped are a sideshow. The main event is the buddy comedy of father and son. “Ignore him,” says JJ. “He thinks he's the black James Bond."
"If that m----------r was real, he'd think he was me!” corrects Shaft. This film is more buddy cop comedy than gritty urban drama.
The 1971 Shaft was a culture-changer, an underdog demanding respect and startlingly seizing it. Jackson already commands the respect that comes with $7 billion in U.S. ticket sales, and this film's impact on society and cinema will be nil. Shaft 2019 is silly entertainment, light and savory as cineplex popcorn.