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Crass ‘Shaft’ mostly goes for laughs — and misses

The entry, focused on Samuel L. Jackson and newcomer Jessie T. Usher as his sensitive son, marks a new low for the franchise.

Jessie T. Usher (left, with Alexandra Shipp), Samuel L. Jackson and Richard Roundtree play three generations of street warriors in “Shaft.”
New Line Cinema

With a cool and charismatic performance by Richard Roundtree as the title character and one of the greatest movie theme songs of all time courtesy of Isaac Hayes, the original “Shaft” from 1971 was a blaxploitation, neo-noir classic.

Can you dig it.

After the critical and box-office success of “Shaft,” Roundtree starred in “Shaft’s Big Score!” (1972) and “Shaft in Africa” (1973) and even seven made-for-TV movies, which of course had to be toned down for television, although John Shaft remained a bad mother (shut your mouth).

That was it for Shaft — until 2000, when Samuel L. Jackson played the nephew of Shaft in John Singleton’s entertaining actioner, which boasted a supporting cast including Christian Bale, Toni Collette, Jeffrey Wright and Busta Rhymes.

Now, some two decades later, here’s another movie titled “Shaft,” and it’s arguably the weakest, lamest and least memorable entry in the history of the franchise.

It’s also crass and tone-deaf.

And played mostly for laughs that are few and far between.

Here’s an exchange between Jackson’s Shaft and his ex, Maya (Regina Hall), who have run into each other in a restaurant:

Shaft: Oh lookit here, how long’s it been!?

Maya: Never long enough. [Turning to the women,] Lady Syphilis, Madame Chlamydia, lovely to meet you.

Shaft: That’s Junior’s mom. She’s a little bitter.

Eesh. And that’s about as sophisticated and clever as the humor gets.

This “Shaft” stars Jessie T. Usher as John “JJ” Shaft, a cybersecurity expert with the FBI who has had almost zero contact with his father (Jackson’s character) since his folks split up when he was just a baby.

But after JJ’s best friend dies under suspicious circumstances, he seeks out his father — who is still working as a private detective, cussing up a storm and breaking fingers and busting heads and kicking thugs in the um, private area, and walking around in broad daylight with a shotgun — to help him navigate the meanest streets of Harlem and figure out what really happened.

Pops takes one look at this well-educated, smartly dressed, non-violent son — and is mildly horrified. The kid seems so sensitive, he might be, you know, not interested in women, leading Pops to make a reference to his son being like Don Lemon.

Hilarious.

The cookie-cutter crime thriller plot is just an excuse for Jackson to crack wise while beating up low-level scum and exchanging gunfire in public places, while Junior reacts with horror — until of course, JJ finds his inner Shaft, with the help of Roundtree’s grandpa Shaft, who makes a late-game appearance and adds a little juice and spark to the quickly fading proceedings.

This is a good-looking film, featuring a likable cast (which also includes the rising star Alexandra Shipp as a potential love interest for Junior). Some of the jokes actually are pretty funny, especially when someone dares take a (verbal) shot at Jackson’s peacocking ways. And of course, it’s always great to hear variations on the theme from “Shaft.”

Middle generation Shaft looks good roaring around in his souped-up Monte Carlo SS. It’s too bad the characters as a whole didn’t have a better vehicle.