In 1971, the movie “Shaft” comes out. Blaxploitation is born, Richard Roundtree becomes an overnight sensation in the role of John Shaft and Isaac Hayes’ theme song about “the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks” is an instant hit. Later, the tune wins Hayes an Oscar.
It was all a very big deal.
In 2000, the movie “Shaft” comes out. Samuel Jackson takes over the title role (Roundtree has a small part as the character’s uncle). Jackson’s charisma carries the day and the picture is a moderate hit.
Now it’s 2019, and here’s “Shaft.” Again.
Jackson is back. Roundtree, too, looking sharp and fit and cool in a close-cut snow-white beard. Shaft, Shaft and, wait for it … Shaft. Junior, the Jackson character’s son, the grandnephew of Roundtree’s character. He’s played by Jessie T. Usher.
Three “Shafts” in close to half a century. (Branding rules.) The title says it all. What we have here is a failure of imagination and originality.
What we have here is a standard-issue comedy-tinged crime thriller indifferently directed by Tim Story (the “Think Like a Man” and “Ride Along” movies). Its nothing-special plot, the product of writers Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow, features ill-defined villains and briefly touches on Islamophobia and military veteran PTSD and drug abuse — and never follows up on any of those issues.
Its chief weakness is its third-generation claimant to the John Shaft legacy who, not to put too fine a point on it, is a wuss. An MIT graduate and a cybersecurity analyst for the FBI, he is, in his dad’s considered opinion, above all a mama’s boy. Doesn’t like guns (says so repeatedly). Also, he’s no lady’s man.
Daddy, the walking definition of machismo, is scornful. Junior is resentful. The father left the lad and his mother (Regina Hall) 25 years ago and has barely been in contact since.
The women in “Shaft” are not well-served by Story. He lets Hall play the mother as a shrill shrew whose contempt for her ex-husband is boundless and expressed at the top of her lungs. Alexandra Shipp, playing a young doctor Junior is sweet on, likes Junior’s civilized ways until she sees him showing unexpected skills in a gunfight. At that point, her eyes light up with an admiring “now that’s a real man” look.
Abandonment issues, the young man has a bunch. But when his best friend dies of a suspicious heroin overdose and the cops dismiss Junior’s belief his pal was a victim of foul play, Shaft Junior reluctantly seeks out his private-eye pops to dig into the matter.
The movie rests on Jackson. He drops F-bombs galore (it’s what Samuel L. Jackson does), and beyond that most of his performance consists of him giving Junior the stink eye for being such a weenie. He also has fine fashion sense, rocking a calf-length red leather coat. By the end, all three Shafts are similarly stylin’ that look.
Usher comes across as a nice young fellow who can ably deliver a quip in his comic squabbles with his old man. A choice moment is when Junior dings his dad for thinking he’s “a black James Bond.” Dad promptly fires back: “If that dude was real, he’d think he was me.” Touché.
★★ “Shaft,” with Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie T. Usher, Richard Roundtree, Regina Hall, Alexandra Shipp. Directed by Tim Story, from a screenplay by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow. 111 minutes. Rated R for pervasive language, violence, sexual content, some drug material and brief nudity. Opens June 14 at multiple theaters.