Director (2000) John Singleton (2019) Tim Story
Screenplay (2000) Richard Price, John Singleton, Shane Salerno (2019) Kenya Barris, Alex Barnow based on the premise and characters of Ernest Tidyman
Starring Samuel L Jackson, Richard Roundtree, (2000) Vanessa Williams, Jeffrey Wright, Christian Bale, Dan Hedaya, Busta Rhymes, Toni Collette, (2019) Jessie Usher, Regina Hall, Alexandra Shipp, TItus Welliver, Method Man, Matt Lauria, Isaach de Bankolé
John Shaft is the urban answer to the motto “Don’t Tread on Me.” It’s a remarkable statement that no doubt has lead many critics who live in big cities to blanch at the apparent crudity espoused by the filmmakers. Now in their 5th film and going on 5 decades. All it really does is show the difference between those who prefer a nanny state and those who’d rather think of it as a distant uncle they see once in a while.
In the first update of the series, taking place as the fourth film in the series, John Singleton gives a vibrant and viscerally exciting look into what appears to be the nephew of the original John Shaft (Roundtree). The mystery is multi-layered, but still uncomplicated.
Shaft II (Jackson) is brought into a case where a young racist son of a mogul (Bale) murders a young black man who is with his white girlfriend. The ensuing investigation and failed prosecution leads Shaft II to give up his badge in spectacular fashion. Then he moves forward at a Private Investigator to complete the investigation on his own.
This leads him into the path of Wright’s phenomenal Peoples Hernandez. Wright’s king snake is one of the best antagonist portrayals in the last 25 years. His emphasis point while on the toilet is both hilarious and irreverently fearsome.
Singleton weaves common threads together in a manner that ratchets the intensity to 10 while letting good actors (Colette, Bale, Wright) give multiple layers to simple characters. Even the simple character of Busta Rhymes’ Rasaan is as delightful as a one note character can be. If you are looking for a complex story line or socially conscious portrayals that avoid stereotypes, look elsewhere. This is the inner city and the consequences of actions are real.
Roundtree gives a nuanced performance as a reminder of the cynical reality of waiting for The Man to come through for the people. So we get to see what happens when Jackson’s Shaft II does it his own way.
What the plot lacks in nuance, Singleton more than makes up for with energy, acting and style. He allows Jackson to breathe in the most stylish clothing possible. There are less vulgarities and more a feeling of community than in the newer story, but the feeling is rapturous when we see Shaft is on the case.
The newest version of the story starts out almost a decade before the previous takes place. We see John Shaft (Jackson), his “woman” Maya (Hall) and their infant son attacked by the forces of Gordito ” ( de Bankolé ) in downtown Harlem. This is enough to make Maya take JJ out to the suburbs away from John, who remains.
Flash forward to the present and we see the younger Shaft (Usher) as a data analyst for the FBI, living in Soho in an apartment that looks like a millennial’s Ikea and The Gap shopping dream. He hasn’t had contact with his father, except through a series of highly inappropriate gifts for Christmas and birthdays. Everything is set up for a generational gap movie. Which is what you get.
Whether you like this movie will depend, in a large degree on your political sensitivity. There are several shots across the bow for both father and son. Jackson’s Shaft II gets in several cracks that compare Usher’s Shaft III to Don Lemon, Stephen A. Smith, etc. Many people would assume this means that the elder shaft is against the homosexual or Metro sexual ideal.
Those who take the whole film in will discover this is not the case. Questions about whether his son likes female genitalia are just those. They are not judgments. Shaft II even has his own proclivity which is kind of out there, if you listen long enough to hear him discuss it.
To that end, JJ gets plenty of opportunities to show that different definitely does not mean inferior. His character takes ample opportunities to show that he is more than a capable member of the family.
The mystery this round is anything but. Signals push all of the way through to help us realize its not really a question of who’s doing what but just how cool it will look when the Shaft family takes them down.
The cast is pretty stellar, in keeping with the tradition. Usher gives a completely different energy to that of Jackson. That Jackson is so good at sharing the spotlight cannot be underestimated. His power is in looking strong enough to take a few insults and not let it affect what he knows about himself.
Hall proves just the right woman to capture the imagination of the famous Lothario. Her projection is going to offend those who are put off by what people say as compared to what they do. This is also the case for Shipp’s Sasha, who is JJ’s longtime love interest with whom he has been too modern to make a move forward.
The way the Shaft films portray women is something of an anomaly. They are desired and they have desires. They are feminine, but they are by no means clutching their pearls. Fact is, they can be just as dangerous as anyone else, as shown in a scene where JJ gets a lesson on not letting his guard down while his father opts to go old school on a female suspect.
John Shaft Jr.: You can’t beat up a woman!
John Shaft II: Why not?
John Shaft Jr.: Because she’s a woman! That’s like, misogynistic!
John Shaft II: You’re the one being misogynistic, I never even mentioned her gender! I’m an equal-opportunity ass-whooper!
I will let you see who’s right and who ends up on the floor.
What Tim Story lacks in directoral polish, he makes up for in allowing Jackson, Usher and Roundtree roam free. They have the chops to make every scene worth its weight in gold. He knows he can’t match Singleton in style, but he doesn’t have to.
The script for this film has some incredible prose. The recall of situational dialogue is enough to make everyone over the age of 20 delight. Even my daughter, age 16, understood how good this film is at making its main characters look fully fleshed out rather than as caricatures. The only thing this film is missing is Rymes’ Raasan.
This, like the others in the series, is a film for those who appreciate those who don’t need the approval of others to thrive. It will not be a film for everyone. It is one of my favorite films of the year.
(***** out of *****) for both.