By John H. Foote
The original Shaft (1971) was among the original blaxploitation films of the seventies; films which took black actors out of sidekick roles and put them front and centre in lead roles. Only Sidney Poitier had managed to achieve leading man status in the sixties, earning an Oscar for Best Actor. Suddenly, in the seventies, black actors and characters were popular on movie screens, stepping out of cult status into mainstream success, forever altering the landscape of American cinema. Films like Shaft, Superfly (1973), and Blacula (1973) were very popular with mainstream audiences who did not see colour.
Shaft, portrayed by Richard Roundtree was a black Dirty Harry (1971), willing to break the rules, happily taking on the corrupt white cops, solving crimes and bed every woman who came on to him, making him a Seventies icon. The first film was slick and goddamn! Shaft was one cool motha-shut my mouth dude on the screen. The enormously popular song written for the film won an Oscar as Best Song and was a top forty smash hit, still popular to this day. The film spawned two sequels and gave Roundtree a decent career for a while, though he never quite achieved the stardom of Denzel Washington or Samuel L. Jackson.
Recently deceased John Singleton directed a remake of Shaft in 2000, with tough-talking Samuel L. Jackson portraying the relentless cop, nephew to Roundtree’s Shaft, who makes an appearance. I liked the film, but more for the dark performance of Christian Bale as a rich Daddy’s boy, insulated by his father’s name and money, free to hurt, rape, even kill who he desires. It was the first time Bale portrayed a grown up, made before he stunned us in American Psycho (2000) and Jackson or no Jackson, Bale stole the entire movie.
This new film, Shaft (why change a great title I guess?) has three generations of Shaft men, Roundtree is the most senior, Jackson is back as Shaft, now a private detective, and his son is a computer genius from MIT who ends up investigating the death of his friend of an apparent drug overdose. What is different this time is that the senior Shaft, John, portrayed by Roundtree this time is John’s father. JJ Shaft is portrayed by Jesse T. Usher as a by the book, educated, all round Boy Scout, which his father and grandfather are certainly not.
The film has a great deal of fun with the irreverent Shaft portrayed by Jackson, mostly, I think because it is Sam Jackson in the part. Is there another actor who can make being profane and vulgar so entertaining and funny? Jack Nicholson could do it in his heyday, but I believe Jackson has forged a career out of being contrary to everything, always politically incorrect, violent with a vicious command of nasty language. And he does it all with some furious energy it is hard to believe the man is seventy years old! But Jackson does not have one aspect Roundtree brought to the character, he lacks the cool edge of the original character. When the three Shafts are onscreen together it is Roundtree we are watching because the camera loves him and he is so freaking cool.
The bare thread plot or barely-there story throws the three Shafts together, each very different men. The youngest JJ barely knows his father John (Jackson) who abandoned the boy and his mother Maya (Regina Hall) years before and reconnects with his son as an adult. Obviously, their differences are huge, with Jackson giving off just the slightest odour of shame regarding what his boy has become. The three Shafts bring their very different styles together to solve a paint by numbers crime you will have figured out long before they actually do it.
Once the characters are introduced we know for certain the JJ will be the target of his father’s abuse, that the middle Shaft will say the most horrific things that just cannot be said anymore and senior Shaft will roll his eyes at both of them, perhaps wondering why cool skips generations.
Jackson’s performance is entertaining but he is in danger of becoming a caricature of himself, he no longer portrays characters unless working with Quentin Tarantino. Though fun to watch not for one second do I believe this is a real character. Usher does not have a lot to do except look wide-eyed and shocked when bad things happen and his father and Grampa reach for their guns. Roundtree is terrific, smooth, cool, Hell, ultra cool, very aware of his presence and how to use it. The three make up an interesting trio, but not for one second are they to be believed.
Great fun watching the actors but like cotton candy, the enjoyment fades as fast as you are seeing it. I will never see the film again and not likely ever think about it either. It is not terrible, just unnecessary.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.