CRIMEWATCH: Shaft

This latest of five films in the Shaft franchise—Shaft (1971) (GCDb), Shaft’s Big Score! (1972), Shaft in Africa (1973), Shaft (2000) and now Shaft (2019)—not to mention the short-lived Shaft television series, is a good film with a bad title. Fast moving, dramatic, comedic, this solid entertainment doesn’t need the Shaft umbrella: it’s an engaging confection on its own.

Samuel L. Jackson is Private Detective John Shaft, a man who operates out of a tenement building in New York City’s Harlem. When his son’s best friend dies of a suspicious heroin overdose, his son “JJ” aka John Shaft Jr. (Jessie Usher), seeks Shaft out to help solve the case. JJ hasn’t seen his father in years, and it’s a bone of contention. But he’s carved a life out for himself, even if he’s a nerd: a politically correct data entry associate at the FBI (his father tells him he’s giving full on “Don Lemon”).

JJ’s mother Maya (Regina Hall) isn’t too keen on her son reaching out to his father, a man she loved but never wed. Maya is a woman who likes to shout, curse and, whenever they are in proximity, berate John Shaft. On hand in a late-film appearance is Richard Roundtree (appearing in this film almost fifty years after appearing in the original Shaft). He’s a wonderful continuum: a living elder statesman star witness to the genre of films known as blaxploitation.

There are car chases, two exciting restaurant scenes where the sets are completely obliterated, and a surprise double cross. There’s also Samuel L. Jackson: foul-mouthed, obscene, and cruelly funny, this is what he does and does best. Case in point: “It’s your duty to take care of that booty!”

There’s also committed acting here. Jessie Usher plays his part with impressive awareness and aplomb, and Regina Hall, “Angry Black Woman” though she may be, is witty, on-point and memorable: her bathroom mirror monologue to herself is one of the picture’s highlights!

Add the films’ many Shaft acknowledgements: Isaac Hayes’ Grammy and Oscar winning “Theme From Shaft” is played throughout, Shaft’s defiant crossing the street against the red light is redone, and Shaft’s signature knee length leather coat is worn by all three Shaft’s in this film, is pleasant nostalgia. So is one character turning to another and exclaiming: “You know that cat Shaft is a bad motha…” only to be reprimanded by another character: “Shut yo mouth!”

Shaft’s grand finale shootout / wrestling match, takes place in a Manhattan skyscraper that looks out over the World Trade Center tower. It’s a magnificently staged and choreographed finale that brings to mind Scarface and John Wick. Impressive.

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Josiah Howard

Josiah Howard is the author of four books including “Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide” (now in a fourth printing). His writing credits include articles for the American Library of Congress, The New York Times and Readers Digest. A veteran of more than one hundred radio broadcasts, Howard also lectures on cinema and is a frequent guest on entertainment news television.

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