He Got Game

Directed by Spike Lee. Starring Denzel Washington, Ray Allen, Rosario Dawson, Milla Jovovich, Ned Beatty, Hill Harper, Bill Nunn, Jim Brown, Zelda Harris, Lonette Mckee. (1998, R, 136 min.)

REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., May 1, 1998

With He Got Game, the director most capable of delivering Hollywood's first truly great hoop drama squares up at the three-point line and takes a big, no-conscience shot for all the marbles. The result? Well, neither a brick nor an extension of Malik Hassan Sayeed's gorgeously filmed visual symphony of nothing-but-net jumpers that opens the movie. Among several factors that keep this nervy, ambitious film from delivering the emotional slam dunk promised by those dazzling images, one of the most puzzling is Lee's failure to play to his strength. For all his superfan's intimacy with b-ball culture, he focuses less on the sport's fascinating mystique than on generic recapitulation of how celebrity culture seduces and devours young minority athletes. The two key players are ultrastud schoolboy hoopster Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen of the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks) and his dad, Jake (Denzel Washington), who's in prison for accidentally killing his wife. Jake catches a break early on when the jocksniffing New York governor offers to furlough him out and trim his sentence if he can wheedle Jesus (whose name is, regrettably, milked for every lame biblical play on words you can imagine) into playing for his alma mater. With the upstanding but harried youngster already ducking swarms of human parasites -- agents, coaches, journalists, and his conniving girlfriend -- who all claim to have his best interests at heart, the sudden reappearance of his less-than-beloved Pops is just one more cause for suspicion and bitterness. With brilliant recent documentaries like Hoop Dreams and Soul in the Hole having already covered similar situations with the force of great fictional drama, it behooves Lee to dig for still deeper revelations. Instead, due to an apparently conscious decision to reduce every character and situation to generic archetypes (even the colleges wooing Jesus have names like Big State and Tech U) in search of mythic universality, he ends up telling us nothing we don't already know about how money, hype, and celebrity mania trash the virginal purity of sports. Playing a role deliberately written not to strain his limited acting range, the neophyte Allen hangs in respectably, though there's only so much variety one can inject into four or five readings of the line, “You're not my father, man!” And Washington stretches impressively in a role that calls for rough, inarticulate workingman's torment rather than the debonair suavity for which he's known. But despite the affecting father-son storyline and Lee's ability to deliver scenes that sizzle with an indie-film freshness and vitality few mainstream directors even try to match, too many other scenes (including the finale) are bombastic groaners that rampage across the line separating big-heartedness and schlock. To rate such a wildly uneven film essentially forces an aggregate, rather than general evaluation. There's just too much to cover with one clean toss of the critical net. But then, that's Spike Lee as we've always known him. Sometimes brilliantly on target, sometimes way off, but never afraid to take the big shots that safer, more risk-averse filmmakers pass off when the artistic stakes are high.

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