The name “Shaft” immediately conjures up memories of the past, like Richard Roundtree in 1971 walking down a NYC street to his Isaac Hayes theme song. Shaft is an iconic and important character, but he’s also a product of his time. Even 2000’s Shaft feels far older than it is, especially with Samuel L. Jackson’s John Shaft II making statements like, “It’s Giuliani time!” while cocking a gun. Yet 1971’s Shaft and 2000’s Shaft at least come off like time capsules for those periods. In the third film to earn the simple title of Shaft, again there is another Shaft, but both Roundtree and Jackson both reprise their roles of earlier generations of Shaft. For the first time though, Shaft as a character doesn’t feel like a time capsule of this day and age, but rather, an example that maybe the older Shafts should have stayed in the past.
This latest Shaft is John “JJ” Shaft Jr. (Jessie Usher, probably best known as Will Smith’s son in Independence Day: Resurgence), an MIT graduate who has taken a tech job at the FBI. When JJ’s best friend dies with an insane amount of drugs in his system, JJ suspects foul play. JJ hires his absent father – John Shaft II – and the united father-and-son duo try to solve the case of what happened to JJ’s friend.
Written by black-ish creator Kenya Barris and The Goldbergs writer Alex Barnow, Shaft is as if these two decided to write a sitcom about the Shaft family. The result has its moments, especially once Roundtree, Jackson and Usher become a team, but overall, the result is humorless and embarrassing. Shaft truly feels like an episode of black-ish that would probably be too meandering to air.
This is largely because of how John Shaft II reacts to his son. In John Shaft II’s opinion, JJ isn’t what a straight black man should act like. As Shaft II and JJ get to know each other, these scenes are full of homophobic jokes and millennial jokes, with Shaft II arguing that not acting tough and apologizing to women makes a man weak. To John Shaft II, a man is a private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks. When his son isn’t what he sees as a real man, he essentially insults him into his way of thinking. Maybe the most disappointing part of this father-and-son dynamic and maybe all of Shaft, is that while these two do get closer to each other in common ground, JJ becomes far more complacent to Shaft II’s way of thinking instead of vice versa.
But Shaft also just struggles to make any sense whatsoever in its core story, as Barris, Barnow, and director Tim Story are far more focused on the familial dynamics happening around the edges of this story. JJ’s former military friend-turned-ex-junkie plot goes in far too many directions, including a nonsense stretch that plays around with Islamophobia for no reason. Again, this leads to problematic moments with Jackson’s Shaft, as when he’s not insulting his son for maybe being gay, he also says his son’s dead friend might’ve been a terrorist. This all leads nowhere and just reminds that Shaft II is a character that now exists in the wrong time.
The focus on Shaft II and JJ also leaves some of the more interesting characters in the background for far too long. Regina Hall as JJ’s mother is completely wasted, and pops up occasionally so that Shaft II can make sexual comments at her. Alexandra Shipp as JJ’s love interest Sasha also seems far more captivating than most of the film, but again, is just an opportunity for Shaft II to point out his son’s failures as a man. Even Roundtree comes off as an afterthought, which is a shame since it seems like he could knock some sense into his son.
Shaft turns Jackson’s Shaft into a douchebag, a detective that’s too old for his environment and stuck in his ways. At least Usher as the latest iteration of Shaft shows that being a man can’t be narrowed down to just one definition, yet Harris and Barnow’s script ends up favoring Shaft II’s perspective on manliness. As Hayes sang in the theme song, Shaft is a “complicated man,” yet Jackson and Shaft show that maybe Shaft was more one-note than originally expected.