Above the Rim
1994, R, 96 min. Directed by Jeff Pollack. Starring Duane Martin, Leon, Tupac Shakur, Bernie Mac, Tonya Pinkins, David Bailey, Marlon Wayans.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 1, 1994
'Tis the season for b-ball films. With the recent Blue Chips, the forthcoming Hoop Dreams, and this debut from Jeff Pollack, Hollywood seems to have caught NCAA fever, and while Above the Rim manages to capture the frenzied pace of the game, it never manages to rise above the weak, formulaic script by Pollack and co-writer Barry Michael Cooper. High school athlete Kyle Watson (Martin) is the best point guard on the courts, and he knows it. In this, his senior year, he's under tremendous pressure to ace the hoops in every game: a scout from Georgetown has his eye on Kyle, but the recruitment letter still hasn't arrived. Grandstanding for attention, Kyle only manages to alienate his teammates and coach, which results in his switching allegiances to Birdie (Shakur) for the neighborhood basketball shoot-out, played on the historic asphalt of Harlem landmark Rucker's Playground. Birdie's a drug dealing, Faustian sociopath who sways the impressionable Kyle with promises of fame, women, and easy money, and Shakur goes a long way with the role, making the character his own, slick and volatile. Meanwhile, Kyle and his devoted mother meet Shep (Leon), a new security guard (Kyle calls him Toy Cop) at the school. Shep's a tormented Hollywood archetype, the fallen leader too cowed by past mistakes to face current dilemmas but eventually it becomes obvious that (like his character in the infamous Madonna video “Like a Prayer”) he's Kyle's redeemer. Halfway through Above the Rim, my friend turned to me and said, “it's a soap opera,” and I still haven't thought of a better description for this well-intentioned but thoroughly overmelodramatic piece of filmmaking. Every convoluted plot twist is telegraphed light years in advance, from the shadowy relationship between the gangsta Birdie and the virtuous Shep, to the mother figure who toils endlessly to make a better life for her son. The only thing missing here is a pregnant girlfriend. Pollack is a better-than-competent director -- his on-court sequences have a keen, vital edge to them and the final tournament scenes are electrifying in their immediacy -- and the cast is excellent, from Bernie Mac as a homeless ex-b-baller to Marlon Wayans' turn as Kyle's goofy friend Bugaloo. Unfortunately, the whole thing is mired in a slow-footed sea of pedantic blather. Heavy-handed explanations are given left and right, and you wish they'd all just shut up and play the game.