The streetwise Harlem P.I. made famous by Richard Roundtree in the 70s and carried on by Samuel L. Jackson as the character’s nephew in the 2000 sequel now adds a third member to the cinematic family with the addition of Jessie Usher as Jackson’s son in the latest installment of “Shaft,” an unoriginal action comedy that pairs sexual crudity and generational gap humor with needlessly stylized action.
Directed by veteran filmmaker Tim Story, whose career has run the gamut from comedy (“Barbershop”) and comic books films (“Fantastic Four”) to true sports dramas (“Hurricane Season”), this latest entry centering on the youngest member of the Shaft clan is a fairly predictable tale more concerned with crude comedy than the poorly plotted investigation at its center. Although the screenplay by “Girls Trip” scribe Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow does succeed in scoring some laughs, mostly involving sex jokes and father-son mishaps, and there are enough shootouts and beat downs to keep audiences entertained, there is an uninspired vibe to the proceedings that make the entire enterprise, like many unnecessary sequels, feel like a shameless cash grab. And while the film does earn some points with the stellar cast who enthusiastically embody their respective roles – none more so than Samuel L. Jackson, who is allowed extensive use of his favorite four-letter word here – one can’t shake the needless nature of this sequel, what with its canned jokes, pointlessly stylized action and choppy editing.
This latest installments centers on John “JJ” Shaft, Jr. (Jessie Usher), a MIT grad and cybersecurity expert for the FBI. A well-mannered millennial more comfortable in a cubicle than on the rough Harlem streets, JJ’s dull life behind the computer gets an adrenaline injection when his military veteran friend Karin (Avan Jogia), a recovering drug addict, dies of a suspicious overdose. JJ and his old friend (and crush) Sasha (Alexandra Shipp) investigate their friend’s death, and their search leads them to a Harlem drug dealer named Manny (Ian Casselberry). But since JJ is better suited for desk work than street busts, he calls upon his estranged father, the impossibly cool private investigator John Shaft II (Samuel L. Jackson), to school him to his brute force investigative methods.
While JJ and his streetwise father prowl the heroin-infested streets of Harlem in search of answers, their investigation leads them down some dangerous paths, one of which pertains to a former cold case of his involving a drug dealer named Gordito. But as their investigation heats up, focusing in on a questionable charitable organization that JJ’s friend was tied up with, the father-son duo decide that their efforts could be improved with the addition of the eldest generation of Shaft men to the equation. Along the way, JJ”s dad schools him to his womanizing ways while trying to reignite his relationship with his son’s mother (Regina Hall).
As a premise, this latest installment of “Shaft” is appealing in its incorporation of three generations of Shaft men into the narrative; and while the OG Shaft is given short shrift in comparison to the other two, there is still a likable father-son bonding story at its center. However, the screenplay by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow wastes far too much time with its tired jokes about generational divides and profanity for profanity’s sake, and too often feels lazy where it could be inspired. Even the action, which mostly consists of shootouts and fistfights with drug dealers and other vague villains, feels needlessly stylized when it could have benefitted from something more gritty and realistic. And while the addition of a quality hip hop soundtrack and some solid camerawork by Larry Blanford makes the proceedings more enjoyable, one can’t help questioning the necessity of this sequel almost every step of the way.
Playing the role of millennial cybersecurity expert JJ who is in desperate need of a lesson in manliness from his lady-loving father, Jessie Usher proves himself a likable lead and a worthy onscreen companion to Samuel L. Jackson’s curse-dropping father figure. Speaking of Jackson, he returns to the role that he reinvented in the 2000 sequel with his usual reliability as he macks on the ladies and delivers crude jokes with gusto. And while his role amounts to little more than a cameo, OG Shaft Richard Roundtree makes the most of his screen time here, and shows off some surprising agility in the action scenes to boot. As for the other actors, Regina Hall is underused but a welcome presence when onscreen in the role of JJ’s romantically challenged mom, while Alexandra Shipp transcends her routine role as Sasha, JJ’s old friend and love interest.
“Shaft” is an uninspired action comedy that causes this franchise to lose some of its cool.
By Lucas Mirabella
Running Time: 111 minutes
Rated R for pervasive language, violence, sexual content, some drug material and brief nudity.