Netflix's Shaft Review
"I'm sick of these Lawrence Fishburne comparisons, that sh*t's getting old."
Despite almost two decades having passed since the last failed attempt at rebooting Shaft into a new franchise, the best thing about this second shot from Netflix is still Samuel L. Jackson.Ernest Tidyman wrote a whole series of Shaft novels (later turned into comic books long after the two film franchises died), and after Gordon Parks' original 1971 blaxploitation hit introduced the world to Richard Roundtree's cinematic interpretation of the now-legendary detective in the original Shaft, two further sequels were made in quick succession, as well as a further TV series also starring Roundtree.
In 2000, Jackson was the no-brainer successor to the Shaft mantle. He was having his hottest streak after 1994's Pulp Fiction catapulted him into the world of iconic cool (compare Jackson in this with Jurassic Park just a year earlier, and it's a whole world of reinvention). This streak ran through the late 90s with a slew of memorable movies including 1995's Die Hard with a Vengeance; 1996's The Long Kiss Goodnight and 1997's Jackie Brown; he even landed his iconic role as Mace Windu in the Star Wars Prequels in 1999.
Although hardly groundbreaking, Shaft (2000) was a solid, slick thriller from the late John Singleton (who tragically peaked with his debut Boyz in the Hood), but times had changed even back then. The 70s ass-whooping sex machine was already considerably outdated, even in a tempered 2000-friendly form. Although financially successful, it never led to an ongoing franchise... until now.
Just one man manages to somehow, inconceivably, hold the whole damn thing together: the legend that is Samuel L. Jackson
In the 80s, after being ambushed whilst with his girlfriend and their baby boy, Shaft decides it's safer if he's not a part of his son's life, and the boy grows up to be a budding young FBI agent. But after his childhood friend turns up dead, he starts digging into the death, realising that he may well need his dad's help working the streets to get to the truth.
Are we 20 years too late for a franchise nobody particularly wanted rebooted in the first place? Like Bond, Shaft would have required considerable reinvention to survive the changing times, but, unlike Bond, nobody ever appeared capable of doing it. Unfortunately, even in 2019, that sad fact doesn't appear to have changed.
Netflix's 2019 Shaft is an odd watch. It at once plays like an R-rated old school Adam Sandler comedy (we're talking Happy Gilmore-era, not Netflix's Murder Mystery), with commensurate swearing, lewd jokes that border on gross-out humour, sexual innuendo aplenty, and comedy in the face of adversity; whilst also seemingly taking itself somewhat seriously, playing the action and 'dramatic' story straight, and trying its best to avoid becoming a parody (sometimes successfully by making light fun of itself instead).
The trouble is that the two combine quite poorly, with the Sandler humour so cloying now that even Sandler doesn't use it anymore (the 'homo' joke doesn't show the character as outdated in 2019, like it's supposed to; it shows the writers are outdated, peddling bad laughs that went out of date at the turn of the millennium). And the story underneath it all is pretty weak and formulaic, throwing up some generic nonsense about a wanted drug dealer, and attempting to make it contemporary by including themes of terror suspects at mosques and Islamophobia (presumably also because the FBI might not have been interested in just another drug dealer). And the family woes of Shaft, his son, his ex-girl, his son's would-be girlfriend, and granddad - the original Shaft - take priority here, again shifting this back to feeling less like a Shaft thriller and more like a comedy.
Hardly a tribute to the original Shaft movies, and hardly even a decent follow-up to 2000's reboot, this is straight-to-DVD territory here
Jesse Usher appears to be destined to be cast in unsuccessful reboots as the son of familiar characters in the successful original films, despite the fact that he absolutely hasn't earned it. Would he have been cast in Will Smith's role in Independence Day? No, well why cast him as the son in Independence Day: Regurgence? And he would never have made the cut as Shaft back in the day, so why is he here? Perhaps the intention was to counterpoint his 'modern', reserved P.C. attitude with Shaft's outdated, highly non-P.C. ways, but the two are just too extreme - Jackson being the only reason that his older Shaft doesn't come across as an over-sexed septuagenarian bigot (which the character certainly is), whilst Usher is stuck-up beyond all logic, refusing to be armed even when walking into drug dens, and a decade too old to be acting like a teenager who has never had a drink before (cue drunken boxing, capoeira-style, and throwing up on women). If the plan was to go for 'best of both worlds', the result is largely 'worst of both worlds'.
Despite all of this just one man manages to somehow, inconceivably, hold the whole damn thing together: the 70 year old legend that is Samuel L. Jackson. Gifted some decent enough Captain Marvel de-aging during the opening sequence (so good, in fact, that you wonder why they didn't just strip the entire passing-the-mantle family thread out and just have him go solo), and featured in enough of the over-indulgent runtime to just about carry the weight of this nonsense, Jackson is a real trooper; the best lines (you even forgive him the duds), the best action, and the best presence. Hardly a tribute to the original Shaft movies, and hardly even a decent follow-up to 2000's reboot, this is straight-to-DVD territory here (or straight-to-streaming, as it is in the UK), with Jackson working his magic to keep you on board and at least halfway succeeding against all odds.
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