Tim Story’s “Shaft” is the third film in the series to share the title, following Gordon Parks’ inaugural 1971 version and John Singleton’s 2000 next-generation sequel. While Singleton’s pseudo reboot subverts the original’s blaxploitation trappings of misogyny and degenerate glorification, the newest entry is a regressive nightmare. This time around, it’s FBI data analyst John “JJ” Shaft, Jr. (Jessie Usher) who finds himself defending his father (Samuel L. Jackson) and grandfather’s (Richard Roundtree) mononym reputation on the streets of New York City.
Instead of combating racial injustice outside of an unreliable system, Samuel L. Jackson’s John Shaft II isn’t even the same person despite playing the same character. He prioritizes imparting JJ with his idea of old-school attitude: sexually degrading women and posturing excessive machismo. Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow’s offensive script infers that anything less is considered admittance to homosexuality in Shaft II’s eyes. Throughout its running time, “Shaft” depicts several instances of homophobia, islamophobia, racism, and transphobia for laughs. The most devastating part is how easily these jokes land, as if granting bigoted members of the audience permission to finally exhale their intolerance.
“Shaft” begins with a car shootout in 1989 that puts the title star’s family in mortal peril. Following this near-death incident, Maya (Regina Hall) vows to leave her husband’s drug warfare life behind, taking their infant son with her. It isn’t until thirty years have passed and Gordito (Isaach De Bankolé) – an old nemesis of John Shaft II – resurfaces in Harlem that father and son reunite. Sequel logic magically dictates that not even turning his life around by working as an NYPD detective (as he did in the 2000 film) granted Shaft II access to JJ.
Their paths finally cross after JJ seeks his father’s help investigating the death of JJ’s best friend, Kasin (Avan Jogia), who suspiciously overdoses despite observable sobriety. Somehow JJ and Kasin’s fellow college friend Sasha (Alexandra Shipp) gets involved in the case, her nurse profession subordinate to her “romantic interest” role that’s meant to prove JJ’s heterosexuality.
The trail leads to a mosque raid – adding conservative soapbox fuel to JJ’s boss, Special Agent Vietti (Titus Welliver) – and a run-in with a Veterans recovery group called Brothers Helping Brothers. Unsurprisingly, the organization name doesn’t get a homophobic running gag reprieve. The underworld ties to the various third parties become foggier the more overstuffed the plot gets, though all roads lead to unresolved confrontation. The movie maintains a screwball buddy-cop tone, although with curmudgeon authority as if hijacked by Clint Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski from “Gran Torino.” Other than some high-tech gadgetry, JJ never educates his father in a transformative or meaningful way. Instead, it’s the ridiculed, anti-gun Millennial who swaps his morals and gallantry for brutish violence and chauvinism.
The saving grace that narrowly avoids “Shaft” being labeled “Worst Movie of 2019 So Far…” is the exquisite, talented, and utterly hilarious Regina Hall. The film’s only successful sequence involves a restaurant shootout following John Shaft II’s possessive stakeout of Maya’s date. Not only is her prospective suitor incredulously composed even when teetering on a breakdown – played to perfect comedic beat by Leland L. Jones – but Hall herself handles the pandemonium of gunfire with shrieking confidence. Maya’s frustration with John Shaft II’s bravado under fire is palpable, but it’s a world she’s all too familiar with.
With that said, it’s abhorrent the way both Maya and Sasha are written, their sexual gratification only arising when their “men” unholster their guns and fire away. In the most egregious love scene, Sasha and JJ kiss as his mother, father, and grandfather ogle proudly three feet away. Speaking of grandfathers, the original Shaft partakes in an epic three-generation show of force.
When the past is more progressive than the present, Hollywood has a problem. Such is the divide between the “Shaft” that marked the beginning of the 21st century and the heaping pile of distastefulness we’re currently burdened with. Minimally intriguing action and Regina Hall’s comedic genius aside, Tim Story’s “Shaft” is a shameless retread that never stops flexing its toxic masculinity.
“Shaft” is distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures and opens in theaters nationwide on June 14.