When his best friend dies of a drug overdose, John Shaft is suspicious. No, not the John Shaft, the bad mutha-f-bomb-dropper of seventies fame who was a sex machine to all the chicks. And, no, not Junior, the nephew who turned up in a 2000 thriller that most of us can’t really remember. It’s John Shaft lll, the boy that junior abandoned some thirty years ago, a millennial with a degree from MIT, a cybersecurity expert working for the man in the FBI, the one that doesn’t care for guns and who lives in a trendy brick-walled NYC apartment that looks like a display at Pier One Imports, that John Shaft.
Perhaps best referred to by its year of release, considering that out of the 5 films, three of them share the same title, Shaft (2019) centers not so much on the ethnic subgenre of blaxploitation that originated during the early seventies, or even the thriller aspects that underlined Shaft (2000). This new release is more action comedy, with the emphasis leaning heavily towards getting the laughs. What it’s actually about isn’t important – certainly, the writers didn’t seem to care – but the film presumably exists because someone thought it would be a great idea to have all three generations of Shaft on the case together. Which is what happens.
A friend is found dead, his body abandoned in a back street with a syringe on the ground nearby. But Shaft lll (Jessie Usher) is not convinced it was accidental, particularly when he gets the toxic report and shows it to friend and nurse Sasha (Phoenix valley native Alexandra Shipp). “The concentration levels are too high,” she tells young Shaft, explaining it would have been impossible for him to have injected that much into his body himself. “He would have overdosed before he got there,” she explains.
Wanting to clear his friend’s name and prove that his death was not an accidental overdose but murder, Shaft lll hunts down his estranged street-wise father, Shaft ll (Samuel L. Jackson), now a private detective, and asks for his help in solving a crime. “What kind of business could your Don Lemon ass need from me?” asks Shaft ll of his well-dressed boy.
The plot, as it evolves, becomes negligible. It all has something to do with the underbelly of Harlem involving a support group for war veterans called ‘Brothers Helping Brothers,’ a mosque that may or may not be a front for terrorism, a drug den, and a woman called Bennie (Lauren Vélez) who may or may not be a bad guy, but probably is. You won’t connect the dots as the two generations of Shaft try to work out who is doing what, to whom, and why. In fact, you might simply switch off rather than try to figure where things are heading and just let it all play out. It’s easier that way.
What the film is really about is getting laughs from the differences between son and dad and catching up with how things have changed for both of them since dad left the family unit in 1989. The important thing is, from Shaft ll’s point-of-view, in order to get on in this world and to get things done the right way – something that usually involves committing every human rights violation in the book – his boy needs to loosen up, shed some of that tight-ass whiteness about him, and learn to be a Shaft. When Shaft lll tells his dad he won’t hit a woman, dad can’t understand the difference. “I’m an equal opportunity ass-whooper,” he tells his boy with pride.
It’s not until the final act that the original Shaft turns up. Richard Roundtree as Shaft Sr. arrives for the big gun fetish shootout. There’s no denying the crowd-pleasing moment when all three generations swagger across the street, side by side, accompanied by an arsenal of weapons and that original heavy bass line borrowed from Isaac Hayes’ best-known work of ‘71. They’re there to get the job done, even though you might have forgotten exactly what that job is.
The film doesn’t appear to be particularly interested in plot, so why should you? But you will laugh, probably more than you would expect for a Shaft movie. Lord knows why, but hearing Samuel L. Jackson’s endless tirade of verbal abuse and foul-mouthed insults among the gunplay never grows old. When a computer-challenged dad explains how it is that he has a laptop in his office, he tells his son, “I won it in a game show called Beat the Shit Out of a Piece of Shit Drug Dealer,” then adds, “You get to keep that shit.” Can’t argue with that. But enough with family reunions.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 110 Minutes