Review by C.J. Bunce
Not every new movie follows the now common trend of release, rent/Blu-ray, then streaming in only a matter of months. Many factors play into release decisions, including initial movie reception and forecasted rental sales. So it may be no surprise that a second reboot of a classic 1970s blaxploitation movie didn’t get to your favorite streamer in the first year of its release. But at last the 2019 Shaft (first previewed here at borg back in February 2019) has arrived via a free streaming service–Amazon’s Freevee. Nearly 20 years after the first attempt to return the name Shaft to the marquee, director Tim Story (Barbershop) tried again to see if it is possible to make the characters of the Academy Award and Grammy Award-winning 1971 Richard Roundtree movie relevant in the 21st century. Unlike many other franchises with their repeated one-word title sequels (Halloween, Scream, etc.), the 2019 movie is something worthy of the original.
Tim Story pretty much nails it–transferring the era and mystique (and human flaws) of the original John Shaft to his son John Jr., played by the one-of-a-kind Samuel L. Jackson, who is probably the only actor who could have pulled off such a feat. Director Story then uses John Shaft, Jr.’s son J.J. as a mirror of a modern black man reacting to the ways of the past. Through a comedy script by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow, everyone gets a say, and it’s left to the audience to laugh and cringe along the way. Roundtree is relegated to Grandpa, only the kind of Grandpa John Shaft would be, for the final act. It’s not enough, but he’s still great fun.
The character hails from Ernest Tidyman’s novel, in the era where movies frequently went straight to studio purchases before the source novel was released in bookstores (see, for example, Jaws). All the movies in the franchise (including lesser, early sequels Shaft’s Big Score and Shaft in Africa) feature Roundtree as the take-no-prisoners detective who was in many ways a black version of James Bond–something joked about in the 2019 movie. Shaft movies took this further, with more sex, Rated R language, and violence than any Bond has ever seen.
Often when a story merely serves the role as a baton in a relay race, the new characters fall flat. In the 2019 movie, the hand-off is to the new generation of detective, J.J. the FBI data analyst, played by Jessie T. Usher. Usher takes a role that once would have been dished out to Will Smith, makes it his own, and by the end of the movie establishes his character on equal footing with two powerful actors. Better yet, his chemistry with co-star Alexandra Shipp (Dark Phoenix, Barbie) as friend-turned-girlfriend Sasha makes for a sweet romance as a subplot. There’s plenty of room left for more fun with Regina Hall (Scary Movie) as J.J.’s mom (and John Jr.’s equally sharp-tongued ex) and a cameo role by Titus Welliver (Bosch) as J.J.’s boss.
When J.J.’s ex-military friend is found dead, J.J. suspects foul play. Shielded from his father by his mother his entire life for so many obvious reasons, J.J. takes the drastic step of enlisting his father at his age-old detective agency in Harlem for help. This is another instance of Jackson becoming his character completely, just like he did in Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and the Marvel movies. The silver Chevelle helps. Although the case is simple, it’s the cinematography and music that make this Shaft today’s update to the 1971 Shaft, but to Dirty Harry and Bullitt, too. Credit camera veteran Larry Blanford (Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Terminator Genisys, The Predator, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, Paycheck, Top Gun, X-Men: Days of Future Past) for all the great cityscapes and seedy NYC corners and car chases, and Christopher Lennertz (Lost in Space, Supernatural, Agent Carter) for translating Isaac Hayes’s songs and style to the 21st century.
You may want to watch the original 1971 movie before the latest movie, but you don’t need to watch John Singleton’s 2000 version, which only establishes Samuel L. Jackson’s character as the original Shaft’s son. Nothing else important is carried over from that version.
If you loved the original Shaft, or Mike Colter’s equally cool character in the Harlem-based series Marvel’s Luke Cage, you’ll have fun watching the 2019 Shaft. Find it streaming now free on Amazon Prime Video’s Freevee. It’s also still available to buy on Amazon on Blu-ray here, and on digital via Vudu, YouTube, and other rental platforms.