Back in 1989, private detective John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) found himself in Harlem, parked with his girlfriend Maya Babanikos (Regina Hall) who was haranguing him about his lifestyle which she was less than pleased with. However, just as she was in full flight, gunfire broke out as a gang of hoods shot at the car and Shaft drew his gun, picking off the assailants and saving Maya, though on demanding answers from one of the hitmen, he was the target. She had had enough, and told him she was leaving him, taking their baby son J.J. with her. The years passed and Shaft remembered his offspring enough to send him porn at Christmas, but that was their only contact for decades...
Until now! Whether the world really needed an update for Ernest Tidyman's classic character this far into the twenty-first century was debatable, and it appeared to have been aimed at the grumpy old men of society who fantasised about behaving like veteran cool dude Jackson did here, which meant walking in front of traffic, driving badly, insulting women and demeaning those so-called millennials who were apparently the cause of all the problems in the world with their pesky tolerance. Time was Shaft was called the "black James Bond", but here that meant the now-elderly hero was taking a page out of Roger Moore's book by going out with girls less than half his age.
So maybe it's appropriate this started in the eighties, but it did not stay there as we catch up with J.J., played by Jessie T. Usher. He was a likeable presence, and his character was designed that way, but being pleasant and easygoing in this atmosphere meant you were a "pussy" (an oft-repeated insult), so he had to be told to man up about fifty thousand times over the course of the movie. It was what you might call a running joke, but it did wear thin after about the fifth instance of J.J. being told he's too white or not masculine enough, masculine seeming to mean behaving like a entitled asshole twenty-four hours a day. The cure for this? Make sure Shaft Jr employs more violence.
Although J.J. claimed to hate guns, he naturally turns out to be an excellent shot when he does get a pistol in his hands, but this was an action comedy of an eighties stripe (rather than a seventies one, oddly) so that was par for the course. There was a mystery here for the three Shafts to solve, as one of J.J.'s pals dies of a supposed drug overdose but he digs deeper and finds a mobster-terrorist conspiracy is behind the death and sets about seeking justice. You would think his position as a cybercrime expert at the Bureau would give him the necessary connections to get the case reopened and uncover the scheming, but that would leave his dad with nothing to do, so for reasons that are difficult to discern as far as realistic character motivation went, he meets up with him for the first time in thirty years and asks him to investigate.
Cue a bunch of whingeing jokes that just stop short of Jackson doing a stand-up routine about avocados, but yes, I did say three Shafts were involved, and the original flavour Richard Roundtree was back too, here glossing over the claim he was playing the uncle in the 2000 version to say he was in fact Shaft's father. What with the middle Shaft being the world's worst parent short of actual abuse, maybe this was intended to have us realise where he got his poor fathering skills from, they do say these choices are passed down. But did J.J. really need a father figure like this one? A few of the jokes landed when the script got a brief grip on the potential for absurdity, but mostly it seemed they'd amassed a collection of gripes from internet comments boards and retooled them into dialogue. Jackson had his irascible image to uphold, of course, and while he may as well have phoned in this performance there was no denying the man's charisma, but here playing ten years younger than his actual age (so how old was Roundtree supposed to be, in his nineties?) this was ramshackle stuff. Oh, and Usher got to romance Alexandra Shipp, so predictably she wound up kidnapped by the bad guys - play the oldies, screenwriters. Music by Christopher Lennertz (with bursts of Isaac Hayes).