For about an hour and 15 minutes, the new Shaft movie has three big factors working in its favor: modest stakes, solid pacing, and one of our most enjoyable actors kind of just strutting around talking shit. It’s hard to overexpress the simple joy of watching Samuel L. Jackson do that Samuel L. Jackson thing — you know, where he listens wide-eyed to someone’s story, becoming more incredulous the entire time until he finally cocks his head sideways in mock disgust, letting out a quiet sigh as prelude to some perfectly delivered chestnut of creative vulgarity (“Oh, you ready to blow? Well I’m a mushroom cloud-layin’ motherfucker, motherfucker…”)? Yeah, I could watch that all day.
And given that the first hour and change of Shaft largely consists of that, along with foot-tapping musical cues and a breezy father/son cop plot, it’s pretty enjoyable. But at some point, the film, from director Tim Story (whose filmography mostly ranges from execrable to forgettable) and writers Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow, decides it needs to wrap up every single thread from a background plot we mostly didn’t care about and throw in a victory lap Richard Roundtree cameo. Guys, please, quit while you’re ahead.
So John Shaft’s (Samuel L. Jackson) son, JJ (played by Jesse T. Usher) has grown up without his father, who separated himself from his infant son and Maya (played by Regina Hall) to keep them safe from retaliatory drug dealers. In his father’s absence, JJ has flourished, attending MIT and becoming a data analyst for the FBI. But unlike his father, he’s kind of a dork, hopeless with women, needlessly buttoning his top shirt button Elijah Wood-style, and sleeping under a framed Lord of the Rings poster.
When the murder of a childhood friend forces Junior to seek out his father to help him infiltrate the underworld, Shaft becomes this odd couple buddy cop movie where blaxploitation era sex machine dad and his woke millennial son try to teach each other lessons about the world as they navigate it. If you’ve ever seen Cobra Kai on YouTube, in which grown-up Johnny Lawrence (Billy Zabka) from Karate Kid has to try to figure out which macho lessons he learned in the ’80s are still applicable, this Shaft has a similar dynamic, albeit with about 50 percent less introspection.
Mostly Samuel L. Jackson clowns his movie son for “acting like a pussy,” not beating enough ass or chasing enough ass like a real man. Dad is presented as a throwback, but very few of the lessons go the other way, and JJ by and large tends to be rewarded the more overtly violent and overtly sexual acts (lesson? gunplay makes ladies horny). Shaft is clearly not here to analyze the genre.
There is something mildly refreshing about how little Shaft seems interested in any form of introspection. Which is authentic in some way — how often do boorish dads really learn a lesson? And would them developing empathy make them more funny or entertaining? Probably not. Shaft‘s jokes end up landing pretty well and the acting is solid from top to bottom. Usher may not be the mesmerizing scene-chewer Jackson is, but he plays a complicated role with deftness and charm. Meanwhile, apropos of nothing, there are a couple of one-off jabs at trans people (Junior’s FBI boss: “I got a seven-year-old daughter that wants me to call her Frank”) that feel more like Freudian slips of the filmmakers than organic story choices. (Evergreen note to commenters: I’m not the one introducing politics here).