The original Shaft came out in 1971 and was the definitive “Blaxploitation” movie of the seventies. It was based on Ernest Tidyman’s novel and covered the story of private detective John Shaft who was hired by a Harlem mobster to rescue his daughter from Italian mobsters. Richard Roundtree got the role over Isaac Hayes who ended up winning an Oscar for the theme song. The movie was so successful that it helped save MGM from bankruptcy in 1971.
The original was followed by three Roundtree sequels, Shaft in 1973, Shaft’s Big Score! In 1972, and Shaft in Africa in 1973. The movie was rebooted/sequelized in 2000 starring Samuel L. Jackson as John Shaft II as he hunted down a criminal and gave up his police career for a private investigator job like his ‘uncle’ John Shaft. Despite Sam Jackson being only 6 years younger than Richard Roundtree, he felt very natural in the role as a character who knows the streets and gets done what needs to be done regardless of the rules.
This version picks up in the early 80s as Shaft and his lady, Maya, are arguing in the car when a local drug lord, Gordito, targets Shaft for assassination. Shaft gets the better of the hitmen, but Maya is terrified that this type of life will keep following them and with their new baby boy in the back seat, she will not take any chances. She takes their son, John Shaft III, and raises him elsewhere on her own. We get a series of time jumps as we see young JJ growing up and receiving random gifts from his father. Eventually, JJ moves back to New York to begin work with the FBI as a cybersecurity expert. His childhood friend Karim dies of a heroin overdose despite being clean. In an attempt to track down the truth of what happens, he reluctantly asks his father for help.
At this point the movie shifts into JJ pointing out how Shaft’s technique, personality, and behavior are all inappropriate and out of date, while Shaft points out to JJ that he’s ‘soft’. Eventually, the plot ties back to Gordito, and both Shafts have to go to Shaft Sr. in order for further assistance and all three Shafts team up to take out the bad guy.
This version is directed by Tim Story, and maintains the offhanded irreverence that the original and spin off mustered. The back and forth between Shaft and Junior gets a little one note, but the chemistry and charm of the stars helps make it more watchable than it should be. Shaft’s entire sensibility is no longer politically correct, but there is something to seeing Sam Jackson play it that makes it entertaining.
- Samuel L. Jackson plays John Shaft II and when we first encounter him, he’s covered in stripper glitter, allowing you to infer what he’s been doing. He embodies the character just fine, strutting around town and demanding answers in his various leather coats and turtlenecks. The character is a relic, but somehow Sam makes him charming and entertaining.
- Jessie T. Usher plays John Shaft III or JJ. He’s doing his best as a millennial in today’s atmosphere and while most of Shaft’s sensibilities offend him, he tries his best to encourage him to adapt to modern attitudes. Usher is game and does the best he can with what he’s given.
- Richard Roundtree plays John Shaft, and he steals the part of the movie he’s in. In this one he reclaims being John Shaft II’s father as opposed to uncle like he said in the previous movie. This despite the fact that he’s 76 and Sam Jackson is 70. At one point in the movie they mention that Shaft II is 60, and sure, we’ll buy that. Roundtree is so cool, so slick, and just the best part of this.
- Regina Hall (who is 48 by the way) plays Maya and look – you know the female characters in a Shaft movie are not going to be well developed. Essentially her only trait is that she was worried about her son and left Shaft, and now is still worried about him while still being sort of attracted to Shaft.
- Alexandra Shipp plays Sasha Arias, a childhood friend of JJ’s. She is smart and fun and has no patience for Shaft’s nonsense when he shows up. She holds the grudge about him not being in JJ’s life better than JJ does. She does get reduced to being starry-eyed chick when JJ defeats a couple of thugs.
- Method Man reprises his role from the 2000 version as Freddy P, a friend of Shaft’s who is there to provide assistance, information, and commentary on JJ’s ‘game’ at a club.
- Luna Lauren Velez who I remember from New York Undercover plays Bennie, a local grocery store owner who may or may not be in on the plot.
- Titus Welliver plays Special Agent Vietti – JJ’s boss who is there to represent the ‘man’ always keeping JJ down by suggesting that a rookie should not take lead on a big investigation.
Overall, it’s a little choppy and one-note here and there, but the action scenes are pretty fun, and the banter between JJ and Shaft is entertaining enough thanks to the two actors playing the roles. Again, once Roundtree joins the fun, the movie is taken up a level. I saw this in an almost full theater, and everyone in there was having a great time, laughing and cheering most of the movie. It’s not great, but it sure is entertaining. Put on your trenchcoat and turtleneck and have a good time.
7 out of 10
I absolutely watch a weekly series on HBO called Shaft Investigations with all three of theses dudes solving cases.
And in case you forgot the theme song, and how it's easily one of the very best and funkiest songs ever.