Samuel L. Jackson in Shaft (Photo: Warner)
**1/2 (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Tim Story
STARS Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie T. Usher
The 2000 Shaft was an update of the 1971 Shaft, with Samuel L. Jackson playing the nephew of the iconic private dick made famous by Richard Roundtree. The new Shaft isn’t another reboot or remake but a follow-up to the 2000 Shaft, which makes one wonder why it wasn’t called Shaft 2, Shaft’s Big Score! (the name of the first sequel to the ’71 original), The Return of Shaft or even Fifty Shades of Shaft. Then again, perhaps the moniker is meant as a reminder that the first Shaft appeared in the early 1970s, when “political correctness” and “woke” had yet to be invented (or at least perfected).
In other words, this is a retrograde Shaft, full of the sort of eyebrow-raising antics that only Clint Eastwood is allowed to pull off anymore. Jackson isn’t playing John Shaft as much as he’s playing Fred G. Sanford — he’s more Redd Foxx than Richard Roundtree, insulting everyone around him and not caring who gets offended.
Jessie T. Usher co-stars as Shaft’s son, JJ Shaft. He drinks coconut water and is hesitant to utter the word “pussy,” so Dad naturally assumes he’s gay. But despite their bickering, the pair team up to figure out who murdered JJ’s childhood friend and why. Along the way, they’re joined by the original Shaft (Roundtree), who’s now revealed in one throwaway line of dialogue to actually be Jackson/Shaft’s father rather than his uncle.
Shaft is a throwback to the types of characters once played by the likes of John Wayne and Robert Mitchum. He’s brash, confident and fearless, and he believes that “a woman wants a man who’s a man.” The regressive sexual politics are somewhat countered by the presence of Regina Hall as Shaft’s no-nonsense ex-wife Maya, a woman who disapproves of his line of work, his womanizing ways (when confronted with his latest squeezes, she addresses them as “Madame Chlamydia” and “Lady Syphilis”), and his attitude toward JJ (past Christmas presents for his teenage son included a stack of porn magazines and a box of condoms). Of course, when push comes to shoot, even Maya recognizes that Shaft is good to have around.
The story structure is sloppy and the “gay panic” gags are painfully unfunny, but what makes this Shaft tick is the all-in performance by Jackson. He’s not only dynamic on his own but also establishes an agreeable repartee with Usher. It’s also a kick to see Roundtree reprising his signature role, and he even gets to play a variation of the classic “never bring a knife to a gunfight” routine.
Tolerance of Shaft’s coarseness will of course vary, but there’s always a chance you’ll have a reasonably good time in the moment but hate yourself in the morning.