Taking a piece of pop culture as profoundly yoked to a specific moment in cultural and social history as 1971's Shaft and updating it for modern tastes is a fool's game, one that has fooled people twice now. Which, I mean, if a talent as undeniable as John Singleton couldn't crack the problem with 2000's Shaft, what prayer in hell did the director of Fantastic Four and Ride Along have? And sure enough, 2019's new Shaft is an utter dog, dreadful in its own right and completely hapless as a follow-up to the original classic. Or even the middling 2000 version.

Also, Shaft, Shaft, and Shaft are all in the same continuity, and would it have hurt to do, like anything to differentiate the titles?

This new Shaft functions explicitly as a direct sequel to the 2000 Shaft, reintroducing us to that film's black private dick who's a sex machine to all the chicks, John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) in the 1990s, when he lost his last, best chance at a stable relationship when he endangered the life of Maya Babanikos (Regina Hall), mother of his infant son. She took the boy, raising him to be as mild and priggish as his father was crude and wild, and thus when we arrive at the end of the 2010s, John Jr., or JJ Shaft (Jessie T. Usher) - and it follows none of the logic of the film's scenario that Maya would have let him use that surname, but then it would need a different, dangerously unconfusing title - has become a perfect representative of the very same The Man that his father caused hell for. He is, in fact, working at the FBI, under the leadership of the casually racist Special Agent Vietti (Titus Welliver), where he uses his knack for cybersecurity and movie-style hacking to hunt for terrorist cells amongst the Muslim population of New York.

That's not remotely good enough for a plot, apparently, so we dramatically shift gears to the world of drug-running. JJ has a very dear childhood friend, Karim Hassan (Avan Jogia), who has recenView Posttly cleaned himself up and straightened up his life. To all the rest of the world, then, it looks like nothing but a relapse when Karim ends up dead of a heroin overdose. But JJ and his other friend and longstanding hopeless crush Sasha Arias (Alexandra Shipp) both suspect something darker and grimmer at play. JJ can get a little bit of the way there with his FBI hacker skills, but it's going to require getting down and dirty on the Harlem streets to really figure out what the hell is going on, and the ultra-square JJ is going to be of no use there whatsoever. If you suppose this means he's going to need to patch things up with his erstwhile father, you're damn right.

That gets us past the mean little nonsense of the plot, and into the film's actual content which is watching Vulgar Old Un-PC Daddy Shaft being aghast at what a whinging little twat Neurotic Bougie Woke Shaft Junior has become, in a script by TV people Kenya Barris & Alex Barnow that feels like it's been in mothballs since the term "metrosexual" was still a big deal in the mid-2000s, and only with the greatest reluctance went through to replace it. The arc, of course, is that Big Shaft has to teach his son to be more of a manly man if he's ever going to sweep Sasha off her feet, while Little Shaft has to make his father aware that being even a little bit respectful of women will help him get back together with Maya, which is exactly the story one hopes to encounter in a film about three different John Shafts squaring off against an army of mercenaries employed by a druglord. Aye! Three Shafts! The third of course being Richard Roundtree, the proper Shaft of the original 1971 film and its first two sequels, who is here limply retconned from being Jackson-Shaft's uncle to being his father. Roundtree's reintroduction is built up in a huge way to get us into the third act, and his eye-rolling annoyance at Jackson's bullishness and Usher's meekness is far and away the best thing that Shaft has to offer, but it still feels like the whole thing is a bit morbid and garish, hauling in an old man to point and gawk at him without doing much that feels particularly concerned with allowing him his dignity, or recalling his original performance in any way deeper than "but we have three Shafts now".

Anyway, back to the point, which is that the film is 111 minutes of Samuel L. Jackson looking angry at Jessie T. Usher and saying small variations on the line "do you like pussy? Because it seems like you don't like pussy" over and over again. And I don't think you need to have any particular feelings on political correctness, black respectability politics, or Samuel L. Jackson to agree with me that this sounds excruciatingly tedious and repetitive. Shaft is a remarkably un-funny movie, and it has the great misfortune to have decided pretty early on to commit to being a full comedy - something none of the four previous Shaft films have been - which means that its reliance on one braying flavor of awful joke is entirely fatal.

But what can we expect from Tim Story? The director has splatted his way from one awful movie to the next in the seventeen years since making Barbershop, his only actively enjoyable film, making terrible romcoms, terrible cop movies, terrible superhero films. Shaft is kind of all of those three things at once, making it the pinnacle of Story's art, and also his terribleness. Stripped of any sort of stylistic interest (the only thing that's even a little neat is the opening montage, which ages JJ up through a series of Christmases where he receives inappropriate presents from his absent dad), Shaft has only its humor and its characters to give it life. The first of these is, as I've mentioned, one-note and awful, the absolute worst kind of attempt to bring a character from one social moment into an extremely different social moment and make all of the jokes nightmarishly painful commentary on how millennials are more socially progressive than older generations. The second is hamstrung by the first: there's only so much that even Jackson can do with a part that requests very little of him other than saying "pussy" over and over again, and Usher is too much of a non-entity, with the film stacked too clearly against him, to pull focus even from a dithering and unengaged Jackson. The two women are so transparently there to serve as plot points that it's not even worth thinking about it, except to note for what feels like the hundredth time that Regina Hall is too good for the bullshit that the film industry has her do. Anyway, the film is a soul-sucking comedy, which means it has no energy left over for action or for actual social commentary, the two cornerstones of the original Shaft, and surprise of surprises, it turns out to have no more interest in that legendary 1971 picture than as a brand name to commercially exploit. I am indecently pleased that this turns out not to have worked in its favor.