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I’ll admit that I hadn’t seen a Shaft film before this one but odds are neither have you. This unimaginatively-titled series suffers what could be called the Godzilla issue: a franchise known less by direct exposure and more by reputation and the elements absorbed over time into the pop culture molasses. That’s why you don’t need to see have seen Shaft to know that he’s a cool private detective/sex machine who is followed around the streets of New York by a theme song more popular than any of his films (that’s called the Mannequin problem).
John “JJ” Shaft is not that kind of Shaft. He’s a data analyst for the FBI who drinks brightly-coloured cocktails, hates guns and is awkward around women. When his friend dies of an overdose, JJ suspects foul play and seeks out the one person who can help him: his father, the private detective John Shaft. To clarify: Shaft 2019, starring Jessie Usher as John Shaft, is a sequel, not a remake, to Shaft (2000), which starred Samuel L. Jackson as John Shaft, which in turn was also a sequel, not a remake, to the original Shaft (1971), starring Richard Roundtree as John Shaft. Hope that, uh, clears things up.
JJ (we’ll call him Kid Shaft) has never actually met Dad Shaft, having moved away with his mother at a young age after Dad’s dangerous line of work brought them into one crosshair too many. Dad agrees to help his son figure out what really happened to his friend but is vocally unimpressed with the pampered millennial wuss his son has grown up to be. An unrepentant product of his time, Dad Shaft thinks men should be manly, act cool, shoot guns and never ever apologise. A clash of perspectives takes centre stage in what is essentially a buddy comedy between Kid and Dad Shaft.
The story takes great pains to establish itself in the modern day, complete with a topical Islamophobia subplot, but any hopes for an earnest cross-generational discussion are dashed early on. The movie immediately throws in its lot with Team Dad, the confident badass who gets results, takes out the bad guys, drives the nice car and woos the ladies. Kid Shaft, on the other hand, is repeatedly punished for his reliance on technology and lack of street smarts. Dad embodies a time when conflicts seemed more clear-cut, when good guys were good, bad guys were bad, and nothing was cooler than a righteous man with a loaded gun. While Jackson could play a badass in his sleep, how the movie trumpets his old school methods and ideologies as “right” and his son’s as “wrong” is bound to be a tough swallow for audiences expecting a bit more nuance in their crime stories.
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So the burden is placed on Grampa Shaft, the original himself, to salvage the Shaft family name. His appearance is late in the day and totally unnecessary but it’s easily a high point as he exudes the laid back charm and effortless screen presence that made his John Shaft a timeless character. As for the new John Shaft? Not even Isaac Hayes could make that guy cool.