Three Generations of Shafts Unite to Stick It to the Man in the New ‘Shaft’
“They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother…” declares the theme song for “Shaft,” speaking of the cool black detective from 1971 that, with the original movie, started the whole Blaxploitation fad of the 1970s. Richard Roundtree possessed the role first, followed by Samuel L. Jackson in the 2000 sequel. Jackson was the new Shaft, Roundtree was his uncle, and now they are both back for this latest “Shaft.” Once again, Jackson is John Shaft, and Roundtree is now his father, John Shaft, Sr. Rounding out the family reunion is John Shaft’s son, JJ (Jessie T. Usher). Regina Hall is the ex-wife and mother, Maya. It’s all tied together with ‘70s and ‘80s R&B, not the least of which is the legendary title track.
In the late ‘80s, married couple John Shaft and Maya split up. Heroin kingpin Pierro “Gordito” Carrera (Isaach De Bankolé) ambushes the couple while their new born baby boy sits in the back seat. Exposed to far too much danger, Maya takes the child to upstate New York. John Shaft agrees to keep away from his child and stays in the city, desiring revenge on Gordito.
It’s present day, and JJ works in the city. Nothing hardcore like his dad, he’s a data analyst for the FBI, the kind of job that causes great looking bartenders to ignore him. Or inner city kids to deride his preppie lack of blackness. But when his best friend from high school, struggling war vet Karim (Avan Jogia), ends up dead from a suspicious overdose, what’s JJ to do but beg for help from dear old dad. Long absent dad rises to the occasion, leaving a violent trail of blood and broken bones through the darkest parts of the city.
“Shaft” is not the deepest film in the theaters. It flashes about with an in-your-face irreverence as daddy Shaft comes to grip with his educated millennial son. JJ hates violence, is a gentleman to the opposite sex, and listens to music that, as dad explains, “even white people don’t listen to.” For his part, dad is deeply rooted in the coarser ‘70s and revels in it.
“Shaft” works because it is a fun nostalgic reminder of another time and another style of entertainment. Jackson is great in a role that lets him get much looser than the erudite confines of Marvel’s Nick Fury. The father/son dynamics can be both touching and hilarious as flustered JJ struggles with identity, his heritage, and his high school crush, Sasha (Alexandra Shipp). Regina Hall makes the most of her often underwritten role of Maya. She infuses the character with more depth than the character, as written, deserves. And Shipp’s portrayal can be fun, playing a daddy-disapproving nurse who gets turned on at the sight of JJ shooting thugs. The film would not be complete without Richard Roundtree. Roundtree ties the cinematic past of “Shaft” to its present. The movie would not carry its weight without him.
Director Tim Story, with writers Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow, craft a solid entertainment that is true to its roots. Not as exploitative as its ‘70s predecessors, “Shaft” does not fail to keep the story moving with likable characters and a touching father and son reunion. It’s a perfect match for Father’s Day.
“Shaft” opens June 14 in theaters nationwide.