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This ‘Shaft’ is one bad mother…(and not in the good way)

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I was really looking forward to “Shaft.”

I have a genuine affection for the OG trilogy – 1971’s “Shaft,” 1972’s “Shaft’s Big Score!” and 1973’s “Shaft in Africa.” Between the of-the-moment aesthetic, the street-noir sensibility and the exquisite soundtracks, they are a delight to watch, ironically or otherwise. Likewise, I’m a fan of the decades-later, Samuel L. Jackson-starring 2000 sequel, also called “Shaft.”

So, the idea of returning us to the Shaft Cinematic Universe in the present day held obvious appeal for me, even though I understood that reconciling what I loved about the films with some of the more obviously dated and unenlightened aspects. All of those films are products of their times, for better or worse.

This new “Shaft” needed to do the same thing – be a product of its time. And by embracing the multi-generational aspect of the world that had been built with senses of both homage and humor, this new film – directed by Tim Story from a screenplay by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow – is able to integrate the old with the new in some ways.

Unfortunately, there are some aspects that simply have not aged well, and the world has shifted far too much for them to be rejuvenated. There was a chance to say something about how certain societal attitudes have evolved in the past half-century. Instead, we get something whose regressive aspects are far too present. The stars are game and there are a few compelling stretches, but really, this movie feels like nothing so much as a missed opportunity.

John Shaft III (Jessie T. Usher, “Ride”) – JJ to his friends – is a brilliant analyst working for the FBI. He was raised by his mother Maya (Regina Hall, “Little”) after an incident in which he and his mother were caught in a drug cartel-driven gun battle alongside his father, John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson, “Avengers: Endgame”), an NYPD officer turned private detective.

JJ’s two best friends since childhood are Sasha (Alexandra Shipp, “Dark Phoenix”) and Karim (Avan Jogia, “Paper Year”); Sasha’s a doctor and Karim is a veteran dealing with addiction, though he’s currently turning his life around. But when Karim winds up dead of an overdose, JJ believes that there’s more to the story. Unable to convince his FBI superiors, he turns instead to the estranged father with whom he hasn’t spoken in years.

Initially, the relationship between the two Shafts is prickly – JJ has grown into a buttoned-down, by-the-book adult, while his dad remains the same sort of hard-drinking, woman-chasing anachronism that he has always been. But as the case progresses and they get closer to figuring out what happened to Karim, they also grow closer to one another.

It turns out that there are any number of players potentially involved, people with their own reasons for wanting Karim to disappear. As the Shafts chase down leads, it soon becomes clear that there’s far more at stake here than either of them could have ever imagined, putting not just themselves in danger, but the people that they care about as well.

Oh, and lest we forget, when they REALLY need help, they wind up turning to the man himself, the original Shaft (Richard Roundtree, “What Men Want”).

I’ll admit that the previous films in the series are problematic, my affection for them notwithstanding. But with this new film, it really seemed as if there was an opportunity to address and comment on some of those problems while also celebrating the aspects of the series that warrant celebration. There’s a lot to be said about masculinity and misogyny here; a deconstruction of this character could allow for a really interesting conversation.

Instead, we get a film that doesn’t always seem to understand that the world has evolved. While there are some fun and funny moments, the tone never really gels. And there are a couple of big swings and misses in terms of comedic beats, stuff that someone clearly thought was hilarious that instead comes across as … not. At points, it almost feels like an inverted effort – like they’re highlighting the off-putting stuff and burying what’s interesting.

(And don't get me started on the music. Making this movie with such a funkless soundtrack is an absolute travesty.)

It’s not the cast’s fault. Usher does his best, though he occasionally seems to be floundering; there are moments where he looks to be struggling. Considering he’s ostensibly one of the leads, it’s not a particularly rewarding part. Jackson really leans into the sleazier aspects of the character, and while it sometimes works for comic effect, it’s not a great look – particularly when you never really get a sense of any kind of growth. It’s a full-on nostalgia bomb when Roundtree shows up, though he’s not given all that much to do. Hall and Shipp are both giving it their all, but the script doesn’t do them any favors – the women in general are largely an afterthought here.

The previous installments of this series all felt like they captured the moment in which they were made. This “Shaft,” unfortunately, does the same thing in a lot of ways – capturing the moment in which THEY were made. All told, this “Shaft” is one bad mother – and not in the way we’d hoped.

[1.5 out of 5]

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