Times are tough. Old-school sensuality and romance seem to be on the verge of extinction. We’re living in digital bubbles, swiping for soulmates on our phones. You know what we need? “Yeah, damn right…” We need Shaft!  Reflecting the early-70s, when progressive ideas and exploitation cinema intermingled like long-lost lovers, Shaft’s steely reserve and not so subtle eroticism made it a classic.

In the 1971 original, Richard Roundtree was swagger incarnate, donning a leather trench coat and coiffed afro as he walked the dirty streets of New York to an Isaac Hayes soundtrack. A ghetto-raised private dick with a penchant for loving the ladies, Roundtree delivered lines that’d make a pimp blush.  In 2000, Samuel L. Jackson formidably took up the mantle as Shaft’s nephew in the hit sequel, so it’s been nearly 20 years since Jackson put on the trench coat, and dammit, we need him back. This Shaft loses the heavy drama of Jackson’s first stab at the character, going straight for an absurdist comedy/action film. A good choice indeed, since nobody infuses badassery with humor as well as he does. Getting more insight into the character is really fun to watch too. Unfortunately, the filmmakers also add a lot of trite, nauseating action sequences to mix that aren’t really necessary.

Shaft opens with the titular character’s ex-wife, Maya (Regina Hall) as she raises their son, John “JJ” Shaft Jr., on her own. Although Shaft’s not around for his son’s upbringing, Junior keeps receiving mysterious gifts in the mail, such as a box of condoms for Christmas or a stack of nudie mags for his college graduation. Wonder who they could be from? Soon enough, Junior (Jessie T. Usher) gets a job as an analyst for the FBI, wearing skinny jeans and approaching the world with apprehension and propriety. He takes constant grillings from his boss and is in love with his childhood pal, Sasha (Alexandra Shipp), although he’s too scared to admit it. When Junior suspects his best friend was murdered, he enlists the help of his private eye father, John Shaft II (Jackson) to help him solve the case.

When Shaft and son finally meet and start working together, Shaft works too, setting the stage for a comedic generational divide that makes for a war of ideas in which Jackson’s old-school flamboyance and his son’s millennial logic go head to head. Usher holds his own as a bumbling nerd who’s consistently shocked by his father’s lack of propriety, and Jackson shines as usual, showing movie-goers why he’s a national treasure and an enduringly bankable movie star. With a simple roll of his eyes or silent groan, Jackson says volumes about how ridiculous we’ve all become in this day and age where everything is PC policed. Yes, in many ways Shaft is an illustration of bygone attitudes probably better left in the past, but he’s also a reminder of what we’ve lost —  carefree attitude, grit, and unapologetic expression, especially when it comes to sexuality.

Too bad Shaft only dabbles with this great premise and takes the easy route, devolving into a series of drawn-out, cliched gun battles and action sequences, complete with CGI bullets skimming the air in slow-motion (really?). You get the feeling someone got anxious and thought, OK, enough talking, let’s shoot guns! Consequently, Shaft sacrifices its humanity and soul to appease a dull, adolescent contrivance. Unlike action/comedies of the past like Beverly Hills Cop or Lethal Weapon, which took time in establishing character and plot before plunging headlong into action, Shaft feels rushed, as if two different scripts were mashed together. One of those scripts is good, the other, not so much. By the time the majestic Richard Roundtree shows up, you’re so bludgeoned by hackneyed action sequences, it’s tough to notice. What a shame.  

Shaft, as we’ve come to know him, probably wouldn’t approve of this cartoonish, bombastic nonsense, either. He’d tell the filmmakers to relax, take it slow, let the story simmer a bit, before blowing everything up. After all, a slower-paced seduction is always best.

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