‘Shaft’ review: Iconic character deserves much better than this

Jessie T. Usher, Samuel L. Jackson and Richard Roundtree play three generations of Shafts. Photo Credit: New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures

Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie T. Usher and Richard Roundtree star in a misguided revival of the Harlem private detective.

Jessie T. Usher, Samuel L. Jackson and Richard Roundtree play three generations of Shafts.
Jessie T. Usher, Samuel L. Jackson and Richard Roundtree play three generations of Shafts. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Dimitrios Kambouris

‘Shaft’

Directed by Tim Story

Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie T. Usher, Richard Roundtree

Rated R

There are plenty of emotions that accompany a viewing of this new “Shaft,” the first revival of the character in 19 years, but the one that resonates the most is sadness.

It is truly depressing to contemplate what has happened to this character, one of the most significant in the history of cinema.

This enduring symbol of black power and personification of creativity and success in the business has been reduced to the central figure in a movie that plays like some kind of weird action-comedy sitcom that stumbled its way onto the big screen.

Really, this is a big mess, with nothing to offer from an aesthetic standpoint and little in the way of entertainment value beyond tired and dated jokes about Shaft’s notion of masculinity, his sexual activity and general incredulity at features of modern life such as hailing a cab with an app.

There are actually three Shafts at the center of the new picture, directed by Tim Story from a script by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow. Samuel L. Jackson returns after starring in the much better 2000 sequel directed by the late John Singleton, who knew how to tell pulpy stories with edge and smarts.

But the real protagonist is John Shaft’s estranged son, John “JJ” Shaft (Jesse T. Usher), who finds himself working for the man in the form of the FBI and swept up in a wildly dull investigation after his friend is found dead under suspicious circumstances.

The original Shaft — Richard Roundtree — returns to kick some butt, too, and that’s certainly always welcome.

Jackson remains a particularly good fit for this character, so adept at being simultaneously cool, menacing and funny. He’s the only source of energy here and he seems to be working extra hard to entertain because on some level he understands that this material’s just painstakingly substandard.

Shaft should be so much more than the centerpiece of a movie that floats along with easy and obvious jokes and a flat visual style that resembles a bad television thriller from the 1990s.

There’s endless razzing of JJ because he’s afraid of guns and doesn’t necessarily want to go around beating the hell out of people like his dad. Somehow the plot weaves in a terrorist cell and even makes time for the usual law-enforcement boss demanding the badge scene. It’s all predictable and boring when it isn’t being too aggressively broad in its comic approach.

This character still matters a great deal and there’s so much to be said about how his version of cool intersects with a gentrified Harlem that’s abandoned him. This movie forgoes all of that in favor of generic stupidity. It is lazy and a shame. It is Shaft lite.

Robert Levin