Released: 28th June
Seen: 10th August
In 1971 the world learned the answer to the immortal question “Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?” and turns out, that answer would be an icon of blaxploitation cinema and one of the most badass characters to ever appear on film. John Shaft started as a detective novel before his original trilogy of movies (Shaft, Shaft’s Big Score and Shaft in America) and even ended up with a TV series in the early 70’s before the character was retired until the character was revived in 2000 for a brand new Shaft movie that did fairly well but didn’t get any sequels… until now. Now it has a sequel that did poorly at the box office, was distributed internationally on Netflix and is currently the most critically panned movie in the entire franchise. Does it deserve that kind of treatment? Is the film really bad enough to deserve to be relegated to the trash heap of cinema history? Kind of, but only because it’s kind of bland.
Shaft (2019) focuses on John “JJ” Shaft Jr (Jessie T. Usher), a data analyst for the FBI who has a crush on his childhood friend Sasha (Alexandra Shipp) and a serious problem with his father John Shaft (Samuel L Jackson) who he believes abandoned him and his mother, Maya (Regina Hall). One day, JJ’s friend Karim (Avan Jogia) is found dead of a heroin overdose but JJ is convinced that it was actually a murder and so he reluctantly calls in help from his father, who clearly hasn’t adjusted his behaviour and attitude that he had back in the 2000s, and together this millennial and boomer will have to deal with their differences while taking on a drug ring that spreads throughout the city of Harlem. It’d be such a gripping story if only it was possible to give a damn.
One of the big problems that a lot of people had with this movie was that the older characters felt outdated and if I’m being honest, I was fine with that in theory. In theory, I wouldn’t have a problem with a character having an outdated view provided that was used to comment on how that’s unacceptable behaviour or as a teachable moment. One such moment involves the head of the FBI making a transphobic joke. In theory, this moment could be used to have the character we’re meant to like stand up for what’s right and tear him down. Instead it’s just played off as a typical person in power and no one comments on it. The same thing happens later when a string of gay jokes are flung back and forth without any pushback. I’m not saying every film that makes these kinds of jokes requires a character to explicitly state “This is bad”, some films can just be rancid and offensive without any redeeming value if that’s what they want, but the setup for this film almost demands that there be this clash where the new young Shaft stomps out the bad behaviour of the old Shaft and he never does it.
The film’s visual style also really makes this problem stand out more. It’s shot mostly like an action-comedy, with the same camera tricks and slick editing and slow-motion shots that come with that genre, and that style that we associate with modern films makes the sexist homophobic bullshit behaviour stand out more than it would with a little grime. Everything is so visually slick and edgeless that when they do something like make the bad gay joke or say something sexist, it sticks out and feels even worse than it normally would. It’s not even like these are funny jokes that breach taboos, they’re just mean and uncomfortable to watch. It’s almost sad because most of them come from Samuel L Jackson who is honestly the best part of the movie because he’s just having the time of his life, I want to see the movie he thinks he’s in because that movie looks like fun… and then his character makes a shitty gay joke and I groan a little. Again, you can make jokes about gay people, but these jokes are so mean that it doesn’t work.
As for the plot itself… it’s unsatisfying. It’s meant to be this big plot about drug dealers with one main villain, one backup bad guy and then a third evil woman who sends hitmen to kill the Shafts. Except there’s an entire subplot with a mosque that’s there to just get a few random moments of cliché Islamophobia in, the evil woman is there for one scene and then she’s shoved to the background and dealt with as an afterthought. The backup bad guy is kind of weak, mostly he’s a twist reveal villain that we see coming and the main villain? His link to the story is so tenuous that he literally has to explain why he is so evil and scary directly to the main characters at the last minute who, at this point, haven’t shared a single scene with him. The film doesn’t know who we’re meant to enjoy seeing defeated and it doesn’t care if we know who to root for, it just doesn’t seem to care about making the story compelling in any way.
One thing I did appreciate about this film was that they brought back Richard Roundtree and had all three versions of Shaft together, which was a nice little touch. Here’s the problem though, Richard Roundtree gets high billing but he doesn’t turn up until the third act. It’s another case of “Oh, you were clearly meant to be a surprise reveal and the marketing department messed up and told everyone” so it loses some impact. Also, he has nothing really to do except take part in the last fight scene. He’s underused and not even given the dignity of being a surprise cameo to justify it.
Shaft is depressing because there were so many potential ways this could’ve gone and you can see them looking in the directions of more interesting films before they trudged along and made the bland film they ended up with. I’d like to say I wasn’t even offended by the anti-gay, anti-trans and anti-woman jokes that littered the film, and I wasn’t because they weren’t even shocking enough to be worthy of that. It didn’t shock, it didn’t entertain, it barely amused. Sam Jackson was fun because it’s Sam Jackson, he could read the back of a cereal box and make it watchable but god damn it, I expect more than watchable. I barely even got that, I don’t even know if I got tolerable. I got competent and even that is me being insanely generous. This movie is so lacklustre that they didn’t even play the original Shaft theme at the end of the movie… they replaced it with a bad autotune rap, that says it all right there.