Shaft (2019) Review
CAN’T REALLY DIG IT
In 1971, the movie Shaft was released, an action crime feature endeavor that quickly became quite popular during its release as well as giving birth to the iconic character. Directed by Gordon Parks, the movie, which was adapted from Ernest Tidyman and starred the talents of Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn, and Charles Cioffi, centered around a private detective named John Shaft, who is hired by a Harlem mobster to rescue his daughter from the Italian mobsters who kidnapped her. Released as one of the first “Blaxploitation”, Shaft dealt with subject matter themes on the Black Power movement, race, masculinity, and sexuality. The soundtrack for Shaft, which was recorded by Isaac Hayes, was a success, winning a Grammy Award for Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture as well winning an Academy Award for Best Original Song for “Theme from Shaft”. In addition, the movie went on to become a classic (Shaft was selected in 2000 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”); producing many sequels and knock-offs throughout the years. This included a 2000 remake of the same name, with actor Samuel L. Jackson playing the role of John Shaft II in the movie. The 2000’s version of Shaft, which was directed by John Singleton and also starred Vanessa Williams, Jeffery Wright, and Christian Bale, was met with general positive reviews, with many welcoming the idea of “updating” the character of Shaft for the modern age. Now, nearly 19 years the release of that particular iteration, Warner Bros. Pictures (as well as New Line Cinema) and director Tim Story reupdates (for a 2019 viewing audience) of the legendary “who is the man that would risk his neck for his brother man?” with movie Shaft? Does this film “dig it” or is it another unwanted remake from Hollywood?
As a cyber security analyst for the FBI, John “JJ” Shaft Jr. (Jessie Usher) is making the most of his time; enjoying his time with his friends, reminiscing with childhood best friend Karrim Hassan (Avan Jogia) as well as his crush Sasha Arias (Alexandra Shipp). Unfortunately, JJ soon discovers that Karim is found overdosed in Harlem, ending what seemed like a promising road to recovery for the wayward man. However, something doesn’t add up in JJ’s mind as he begins to investigate what happened and how Karim’s death was tied to his friend’s recently created charity organization for military vets. Needing a nose for super sleuthing the area, JJ reluctantly seeks help from his estranged father, John Shaft II (Samuel L. Jackson), who, thirty years ago, was pushed out of his son’s life by his mother, Maya Babanikos (Regina Hall), who feared Shaft’s violent lifestyle would kill their son. Frustrated with his father’s blunt ways with sexuality and aggression, JJ is overwhelmed by Shaft’s “to the point” response to the assignment, realizing the case could allow him to clean up past problems with a ruthless drug kingpin. Hitting the streets of New York to chase leads and collect suspects, JJ and Shaft make for an uneasy team, trying to connect as a family, while they uncover the truth behind Karim’s unexplained death.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
To be quite honest, I’ve only seeing a few scenes from 1971’s Shaft. I know…shocking! Of course, I know of the movie and how much it meant for African American culture, but I’ve never seeing the whole movie in its entirety. I guess that’s gonna have to be one of my “cinematic flashback” reviews sometime in the foreseeable future. In addition, I’ve seeing plenty of parodies and knock-offs to get the gist of it all and to understand the appeal of the titular “Shaft” character. I did, however, see the whole thing of 2000’s Shaft. I haven’t seeing in quite some time, but I remembered I liked it. Though the 2000 remake wasn’t really gonna be destined for greatness, I found it to be quite amusing and fun to watch; updating the fictional character for the then “modern age” and having actor Samuel L. Jackson play the role of John Shaft was really great and did elevate the movie more than it really should be.
Now, the time has come for another iteration of John Shaft, in 2019’s release of Shaft (yes, the same name of the other two films). To my surprise, I really didn’t hear much about this movie online. So, I was quite surprised to hear about when I first saw the film’s movie trailer at my local movie theater. I saw the trailer a few times there and felt like it was gonna be just another humdrum / mediocre endeavor of a Hollywood remake; something that many would expect from today’s Tinseltown and the nuances that it would carry. Of course, just judging from the trailer, Jackson seems to be right at home in playing the character (again) and I assumed that he probably would be the best part. Whatever the reasons, I felt that this 2019 iteration of Shaft would generic and disappointing. However, I decide to give the movie a chance and went to go see a matinee showing of it on my day off from work. What did I think of it? Well, suffice to say that it was exactly what I was expecting to be….and that’s not a good thing. While setup for the film is there, Shaft never really comes into its own groove; wallowing flat humor, mediocre storytelling, and just being a paint-by-numbers bore. This is one movie I just can’t “dig it” …if you know what I mean.
Shaft is directed by Tim Story, who previous directorial works includes such movies like Barbershop, Fantastic Four, Ride Along, and Think Like a Man. Given background in several prominent comedy feature films, Story approaches Shaft along the similar lines; shaping the feature for a more “broader” net of revamping the classic character / nuances of Shaft. The result is something of a mixed bag, but I’ll mention more on that below. Suffice to say that, Story blends the film to be a mixture of spurts of action with slapstick comedy jokes and gags. In addition, Story, along with the film’s script done by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow, keeps the movie’s story focused on its main protagonist leads…. most notable in JJ and John Shaft. There’s an amusing “silver lining” setup to the whole movie, which utilizes the whole father / son angle as well as the dynamics of the clashing of old ways / new ways, which serves as the punchline for a lot of Shaft’s comedic beats. Additionally, Story does setup a few action scenes that are well-executed and do pull off some entertainment value in their presentation.
In terms of presentation, Shaft does actually look pretty good. Of course, the technical achievements and production aspects probably won’t nab any nominations at any award shows, but what’s presented (aesthetically speaking) is decent enough to be passable of the pleasing realm of moviemaking entertainment. Again, much like Story’s Ride Along movies, Shaft’s presentation utilizes various locales and set-pieces that’s a mixture of cityscapes (i.e. New York) and various areas. Thus, the efforts made for making up the feature’s staging and background aspects are reasonably sound to meeting the industry standard for a comedy /action endeavor. Again, it’s mostly on par with what I was expecting from the movie, so it’s neither really bad nor really good. Just okay (no super visual flair to it), but I think that’s what works for the film. In addition, while the movie’s score is relatively good (hitting all the right notes melodically here and there), Shaft does have a good song selection that plays throughout the movie’s runtime, especially a few “old school” throwbacks songs from the original Shaft era.
Unfortunately, Shaft doesn’t really shine to impress or even entertain much, which is where the movie stumbles and falters greatly within its undertaking and execution. Why is this? Well, for the most part, the movie was just really and painfully bland. There’s really no way to slice it…. Shaft is just generic as they come. Story, for all his attempts of trying to “update” the iconic character, fails to do within the movie, fumbling as he goes. Story is definitely a capable director and has proven to “pull a rabbit out of his hat” on occasion, but that’s not the case with this movie. From beginning to end, Shaft feels hollow and wants to be something more than what it actually is…. stupid and uninspiringly boring. None of the action scenes, though sparse and slightly catching my eye, never really felt anything to be “wowed” over. Plus, Shaft was already redone back in 2000, which brought the character of Shaft (as well as Samuel L. Jackson’s interpretation of him) into the new millennium era. So, why do we need another remake of Shaft? Well, I guess because of Hollywood’s fascination of reboot / revamping older properties for a new generation. Unfortunately, 2019’s Shaft is a pale imitation of 2000 version and the original classic; being more of a cartoon sitcom endeavor (broad and begrudgingly pandering of today’s mindset / viewpoints). In short, Story never makes the movie come alive and just settles for a mediocre / adequate feel from start to finish.
Additionally, the feature’s story is woefully outdated to the point where it becomes eye-rolling inducing on many parts. What do I mean? Well, with the movie trying to update the character of Shaft for a new generation of viewers, it also tries to update its material and fixation on today’s youth and popular culture references. Unfortunately, the idea of “poking fun” at millennials and other pop-culture nuances of today’s world comes off as dated and tiresome. Yes, the setup is there for some moments of clashing, but the actually punchline of it all comes off as stale. While one or two jokes might be fine, but the entire film is almost devoted to making jokes and references to millennials. Thus, this also plays into the film’s comedy routine, which are paint-the-number and don’t really hit their target correctly. There’s even a date joke that Jackson’s Shaft makes about him and actor Lawrence Fishburne look alike….ugh!!! Again, the setup for a punchline are there, but they never land properly. So, despite the movie trying to be funny, Shaft ends up being unfunny….and there’s no way around that.
Even looking beyond that, the film’s script (like the movie itself) is just flat out boring. The narrative path for Shaft has been done many times before in other similar movies (father / son duos or buddy cop features), so new ideas and scenarios need to be interjected to keep everything fresh (i.e masking the staleness of what’s been done before). However, the script by Barris and Barnow doesn’t really do that and keeps everything familiar, which makes the movie’s story progression flat, predictable, and formulaic to the touch. What’s worse is that the movie’s plot becomes WAY more convoluted than what it needs to be. At one point, I was kind of confused at what was going on and how it pertained the main story thread. So, as you guys can guess, Shaft’s script is both lifeless dull and a haphazard mess.
The cast in Shaft definitely has a few recognizable names with the actors and actresses selected for this movie. However, while the stage names are there, the various character (much to the fault of the flat script) don’t really come alive and end up being generic caricatures; serving more storyboard purposes rather than creative / wholesome iterations. At the head of the movie is the feature’s two main leads of John Shaft II and his son John “JJ” Shaft Jr., who are played by actors Samuel L. Jackson and Jessie T. Usher. Since Jackson, known for his roles in Pulp Fiction, The Hateful Eight, and Snakes on a Plane, has played the character of Shaft before (in the 2000 iteration of the movie), he easily slides back into the role and is probably one of the best things about 2019’s Shaft. Of course, Jackson has always been great at playing these types of roles and certainly it shows in the movie; finding his rhythm quickly in the movie and makes the character quite enjoyable…. even though a lot of the material he’s given is rather bland and dated. Still, Jackson’s Shaft works in the movie and it’s great to see the actor in the role again. As for Usher, known for his roles in Almost Christmas, Independence Day: Resurgence, and When the Game Stands Tall, he’s definitely the weaker of the two. Of course, while that might be intentional for the feature’s story, but Usher seems the more “cartoon-ish” one and definitely feels like he’s a cobbled version of a stereotypical “millennial”. Yes, I get his character build, but it’s not really the most original and seems quite pandering on that weaker male persona. Plus, Usher just seems quite goofy in several parts and ends up being quite annoying throughout. Naturally, the back and forth banter between Jackson and Usher is rather good in the movie, but it’s hard to find the “diamond in the rough” when a lot of their dialogue is rather dull and boring.
In large side character / supporting roles are two women that support the father / son Shaft generation, with the characters of Sasha Arias (for JJ) and Maya Babanikos (for John Shaft II), who are played by actresses Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Apocalypse and Love, Simon) and Regina Hall (The Hate U Give and Girls Trip) respectfully. Unfortunately, while both actresses are quite capable acting talents and have proven such in past projects, both their characters are cookie cutter caricatures of what their corresponding male co-stars needs. For Shipp’s Sasha, it’s about her finding “love connection” with JJ, who does follow an evolution character growth path in the movie, but her character is just a cliched of a protagonist’s girlfriend crush. Likewise, Hall’s Maya is a bit “over-the-top” in her constantly yelling and screaming throughout, but a lot of the scenes she shares with Jackson’s Shaft are pretty good. Though, the character of Maya doesn’t really amount to much beyond the estranged wife that’s sort of “turns hot and cold” on Shaft’s reappearance in her life. Also, actor Isaach De Bankolé (Casino Royale and Black Panther) plays the film’s antagonist drug kingpin character of Pierro ‘Gordito’ Carrera. While his acting talents are not in question, but the whole character of Gordito seems very weak. Again, like the rest of the movie, the setup for him is there, but both the film and the script never execute the character well-enough to make him a powerful thread. Thus, in the end, Gordito just comes across as villainous (yet cartoon-ish) baddie….as flat and generic as they come.
The rest of the cast, including actor Matt Lauria (Kingdom and Friday Night Lights) as Major Gary “Cuttie” Cutworth, actor Robbie Jones (One Tree Hill and Hellcats) as Sergeant Keith Williams, actor Manuel Casselberry (Keanu and Get Out) as Manuel Orozco, actor Avan Jogia (Caprica and Twisted) as Karim Hassan, actress Luna Lauren Velez (Dexter and Oz) as Bennie Rodriguez, and actor Titus Welliver (The Town and Bosch) as Special FBI Agent Vietti, are mostly dedicated to filling out Shaft’s minor supporting roles throughout the movie. All of these acting talents are fine in the movie, but most of these individuals are “plot points” rather than rounded characters (even for minor supporting players…. they are pretty flat). Lastly, there is a cameo appearance of the original Shaft himself, with actor Richard Rountree reprising his role as John Shaft Sr., but this “surprise” cameo comes very late in the movie and doesn’t feel as excited as it should be, especially since the movie trailer showcased Rountree’s placement in the movie.
To solve a case, JJ turns towards his estrange father as the father / son duo buttheads and learn to respect one another in the movie Shaft. Director Tim Story’s latest feature sees the return of the iconic character of John Shaft; updating the titular character for the modern age and presenting an amusing tale of a father / son “buddy cop” team up endeavor. While the movie does a few decent action scenes and a fun performance from Jackson, the film itself is just a subpar endeavor; relying too heavily on its premise, a generic story, a convoluted plot, flat writing, uninteresting / weak characters, okay-ish acting talents, and an unbalanced selection of humorous nuances. Personally, I thought that this movie was pretty “blah”. Some parts do work, but majority of the film just felt bland, haphazard, and just comes off as generic and dated. Thus, I was disappointed with it, but I really didn’t have much high hopes for the film. So, my recommendation for this movie is definite “skip it” as there really not much to the film. Basically, if you want to see Samuel L. Jackson playing the character of Shaft….just watch the 2000 version of Shaft (it’s the more superior of the two). In the end, much like Tim Story’s Ride Along movies, 2019’s Shaft is a good idea on paper, but is really a dull and tiresomely boring feature that never really comes into its own groove.
2.2 Out of 5 (Skip It)
Released On: June 14th, 2019
Reviewed On: June 22nd, 2019
Shaft is 111 minutes long and is rated R for pervasive language, sexual content, some drug material and brief nudity
Kind of funny how the “critic” reviews have this low (31% on RT) whereas the audience score is at 94% on RT. Even Reddit has an abundance of positive posts. I still don’t like using the word critic or being known as one despite being a member of my city’s Film Critics Association, but I side the audience on this one.
Actually found Shaft 2019 to be way more memorable than 2000. Albeit a shakier plot that’s a little more convoluted than needed, it’s got better humor, as good of music, a stronger SLJ performance, and utilizes Roundtree a lot more. I do wonder if maybe since I’ve been exposed to the Blaxploitation genre early and often in my life, I kind of picked up on some things. Not sure if intentional, but, to me this felt sort of meta, looking at the hilarious but so stereotypical subgenre and poking fun at it. Simply put, had a good time, would even get behind a sequel.
And that’s what makes movies so interesting….its like art. One person can see a stroke genius, while another sees garbage. It’s the duality of art. Personally, I just couldn’t find Shaft to be interesting or impressive. But yeah….at least you did and that’s what matters.
And we all have different experiences that sees us filter and process information different. It really is interesting.
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