He Got GameHe Got Game (1998)

Starring Denzel Washington, Ray Allen, Milla Jovovich, Rosario Dawson, Zelda Harris, Jim Brown, Ned Beatty, Bill Nunn, and John Turturro.
Written and directed by Spike Lee.

Grade: B+

Review by Carlo Cavagna.

For a guy who always seems so intransigent in his opinions in television interviews, Spike Lee is remarkably adept at exploring all the facets of a difficult issue. In He Got Game, Spike Lee looks at corrupt college basketball recruiting practices. Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington) has served five years of a fifteen-year sentence for an unspecified felony when the governor makes an unusual offer: Jake will receive a commuted sentence if he can convince his son Jesus, the number-one ranked high school basketball player in the country, to attend the governor's alma mater. In order to visit and persuade his son, Jake is given a week's parole.

Lee is not afraid to show that there's always more than one side to every character. Jake appears to be a caring father trying to re-establish a relationship with his son--but is he? How did Jake end up in jail, and why is his son so hostile to him? Lala Bonilla (Rosario Dawson) is Jesus's gold-digging girlfriend. She wants a piece of Jesus's good fortune just like everybody else, but from her point of view, her behavior is perfectly reasonable. Maybe it is. Jesus thinks of himself as an incorruptible kid trying simultaneously to fight off college recruiters and friends and relatives clamoring for handouts--but he's not above accepting the occasional perk. Lee never tires of revealing new perspectives, adding layer upon layer of complexity to his story. The exception is Milla Jovovich's rather stereotypical "hooker with a heart of gold," Dakota Burns. Nevertheless, Dakota performs an important function in the movie. Not only is she essential to the development of Denzel Washington's character, but because she's a white prostitute abused by her black pimp, she serves as a counterpoint to the white recruiters and agents shown taking advantage of black athletes.

Lee's direction is initially very understated. It's clear that he knows Brooklyn intimately, and shoots it in such a way that shows affection for the borough without crossing the line into drippy sentimentality. He allows his script and his actors to fill the screen and lets the scenes develop at their own pace, trusting the viewers to identify what is important on their own. In other words, contrary to what might be called Boogie Nights Syndrome,' Spike Lee doesn't try too hard to show his skill behind the camera. Yet every scene is meticulously planned, right down to the movements and barely audible comments made by extras in the background.

When Lee does allow the camera to play a more active role, he does so with assurance and technical ability. On the few occasions that he engages in the in-your-face style that characterized Do the Right Thing, such as during a monologue about the temptations of success by a minor character appropriately nicknamed "Big Time," it has all the more impact because he's exercised moderation elsewhere. Unfortunately, Lee's restraint does cause He Got Game to drag occasionally. It's well over two hours long, which is not a fault in itself, but Lee probably could have accomplished everything he wanted in fifteen fewer minutes.

Denzel Washington delivers one of the best unrecognized performances of the year. He is a top-notch actor, and he does some of his best work with Spike Lee (they also worked together in Mo' Better Blues and Malcolm X). The real find is NBA player and former college phenom Ray Allen, who plays Jesus. Jesus is a prematurely grown-up teenager with a hardened exterior, but with a still-open wound where his father is concerned. Allen's is pretty much a one-note performance, but he hits that note perfectly. The cast also includes Jim Brown as one of the police officers assigned to Jake, and Zelda Harris (Crooklyn) as Jesus' sister Mary. Spike Lee regulars Bill Nunn (as greedy Uncle Bubba) and John Turturro (in a cameo as a college coach) also appear, and there are numerous cameos by famous real-life basketball players and coaches.

Review © March 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
© Touchstone Pictures/Buena Vista.

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