We begin in 1989 where John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) and his soon-to-be ex-wife, Maya (Regina King) reach an understanding about their baby, John, Jr. during a shoot-out; Shaft’s gotta leave for the safety of the kid. 25 years later, MIT graduate and FBI data analyst, John Shaft, jr (Jesse Usher) is a straight-laced, techno-geek nerd that works in NYC and has two BFF’s: doctor Sasha Arias (Alexandra Shipp) and troubled ex-vet Karin Hassan (Avan Jogia). But after Karin dies under mysterious circumstances, John, Jr. (or J.J.) goes looking for answers and almost gets killed. He needs help and in Harlem, there’s only one man with the skills.
Daddy John Shaft hasn’t changed after all these years; still an analog man who disdains cellphones, drives a drop-dead gorgeous 1970 Chevy Chevelle (how is it this car has never been stolen in NYC?), rarely uses a computer, and is as un-PC as always. Faced with working with his estranged son becomes more interesting when the potential suspect is an old nemesis of Shaft’s from back in 1989. Digging into backgrounds, doing research, and hacking files is more J.J.’s speed, while Big John just whips out a shotgun, cracks a few heads and fingers, and fires a few shots into people to get answers. Needless to say, these two aren’t getting along too well.
But there’s a generic murder to solve, generic drug-money to follow, and the generic second act break-up that leads to the dramatic (and generic) third act reconciliation and shoot-out. Yeah, there are way too many plot holes here, but the good news is the wickedly smart and fresh screenplay by Kenya Barris (TV series Black-ish, Girls Trip) and Alex Barnow (TV series The Goldbergs, Family Guy). With two guys writing such hit TV shows, it’s no wonder this movie had one hilarious scene after another. Even the usual cop/detective tropes are made fun of! My favorite scene is Sam Jackson complaining about how everyone thinks he’s Laurence Fishburne! I lost it!
Yes, the story has your typical who-done-it mystery, but forget that. The REAL fun is watching the delicious chemistry between Jackson and Usher and seeing the slow evolution of J.J. from a nerd into a crime-fighting hero along with his pops and grand-father (Richard Roundtree–the OG Shaft–coming in late in act three). Adding to all this Tim Story’s (Ride Along, the two good Fantastic Four movies) outstanding and playful direction which only added to the mayhem and humor. Jackson, shedding all his ‘piss ‘n’ vinegar’ attitude from the 2000 film, gets to have fun this time around and it looks like he’s having a blast along with Regina King.
The real talent here is Usher, from doing mostly TV shows, proving he can go up against Jackson and pull focus. This movie is NOT what I expected walking in; a sequel that made me LOL the whole film through, an enjoyable action movie with Story’s stylized and colorful direction, clever and sharp writing, and seeing not one, but THREE Shafts kicking ass in the third act? I’d say I got my monies worth!
“Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks? Shaft!” Those opening lyrics, mixed with Academy Award winning Issac Hayes instrumentals, introduced everyone to the world of Shaft and “blaxploitation” cinema, which exploded in the 70’s. This was the first of many Shaft-type movies and their copycats.
Based on Ernest Tidyman’s crime novel, we find private detective John Shaft (an indelible Richard Roundtree), whose office is in crime-riddled Harlem, NYC. Although set in 1971, there is a wonderful crime-noir throw-back quality to this movie (as in the novel), as many of the scenes involve crooks wearing fedoras, talking on 30’s ‘candlestick’ phones, and the director shooting in moody light & shadows. Anyway, Shaft is forever butting heads with police Lt. Vic Androzzi (Charles Cioffi) who just wants to know what’s happening in Harlem as he “hears things are heating up”. Could it be that Vic was once Shaft’s boss? Hmmmm…
Meanwhile, Shaft gets an impromptu visit from crime lord Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) who has a job for him; find his kidnapped daughter, Marci (Sherri Brewer). On the case, Shaft looks for Ben Buford (Christopher St. John) who might be the kidnapper, but ends up walking straight into an ambush… but not by Ben and his gang. Looks like Bumpy wasn’t exactly forthcoming, as he neglected to tell Shaft that is was the Mafia that took his Marci, not any local gang. Oh well, so much for honor amongst thieves, huh?
Using Ben and his gang as back-up, Shaft goes after the Mafia holding Marci and all hell breaks loose, much to the consternation of Shaft’s long-suffering girlfriend, Ellie Moore (Gwenn Mitchell), who Shaft pretty much just uses for sex in the movie. (well, this was the 70’s!). By today’s standards this movie is well dated, with no electronics of any kind, pay phones on the street (remember those?), taxi cabs (no Uber’s), women treated as objects, and leather jackets galore! The acting ranged from dead serious to over-the-top hammy, with much of the dialogue being either stilted or laughably awkward. Again, the 70’s, man.
Screenplay by Shaft author Tidyman and John D.F. Black (a prolific TV series writer from 1960-1987), the movie has a genuine film-noir vibe to it, largely thanks to to director Gordon Parks (Super Cops, Shaft’s Big Score), who had a real feel for the movie’s context and flavor. It also, unfortunately, has just about every clichéd movie trope every seen in every detective movie ever. Still, for a movie in the 70’s it broke barriers: F-bombs, an openly gay character, both Shaft and his buddy-cop friend ‘pulling the race card’ on each other and, of course, the infamous “N-word”.
But the movie was easily Richard Roundtree’s career maker, as he embodied the handsome “Dirty Harry” sleuth and ladies man, not only making this movie, but also two sequels (Shaft’s Big Score and Shaft In Africa), a one-season (1973) Shaft TV series, and reprising his Shaft role in the 2000 and 2019 sequels as Samuel L. Jackson’s father… both named Shaft!
Tasty Trivia: Quentin Tarantino has stated that, in his movie Django Unchained, Broomhilda and Django are in fact the great-great-great-great grandparents of John Shaft! Okay, I can see that…