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Review: Lee at top of game with 'He Got Game'

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- I think "He Got Game" is one of the best movies Spike Lee has ever made, but hold it a second before you go putting on your shoes and running out to the mall to see it. I've never been much of a Lee fan for reasons that would be readily apparent to even the most casual moviegoer if American films weren't so mercilessly geared to the bottom line, thanks to a mind-set that equates heartfelt filmmaking with ridiculous aspirations toward "art," i.e. that boring stuff that they store in museums.

The real tears (in Hollywood, anyway) are reserved for especially massive weekend grosses, and a director who's willing to be guided by rampant emotionalism, when he actually manages to squeeze a film onto the release sheet, can more often than not be mistaken for a genius. Oliver Stone, meet Spike Lee.

Studio missteps make Lee look like far-reaching visionary

The fact that the studios have dug an exceedingly deep hole for themselves in the past 20 or so years can imbue someone like Lee -- who, regardless of what you think of his movies, is wholly committed to what he's doing -- with the glow of a far-reaching visionary. I'm not trying to suggest that it's a complete case of the emperor's new clothes, either. The assassination sequence in "Malcolm X" alone would suggest that Lee is capable of powerful, classically constructed imagery, and all of his films bear an undeniably personal (although self-consciously flashy) visual imprint. The problem is that Lee's movies, from day one, have fallen victim to his own less-than-focused ambitions.

View the theatrical movie trailer of "He Got Game"
(4.5Mb QuickTime movie)

Lee's sporadically effective films are repeatedly hamstrung by his attempts to either make too many points all at once ("School Daze," a meditation on college fraternities and black-on-black racism with comedy, drama, and song-and-dance numbers; "Jungle Fever," an interracial romance with barely integrated crackhouse moralizing), and making one point over and over again until you're ready to pull your hair out (the often very funny "She's Gotta Have It" and the groundbreaking but overrated "Do the Right Thing.")

Simply put, Lee is a smart guy who has a way with visuals, but he's a painfully obvious screenwriter, a live wire whose righteous, racially well-earned anger allows him the luxury to make his points with a jackhammer. He seems to think that letting characters scream their opinions directly into a camera lens is the same thing as writing a scene; the idea of feeding information into a sequence by tasteful, naturalistic increments seems strangely beyond his comprehension. Lee's good fortune is that the movies are in such dire need of directors who display outward passion that nobody can be bothered to notice his shortcomings.

Washington powerful, consistent, but Allen nervous, flat

"He Got Game" works in a rather primitive sort of way that screams movie of the week, albeit gussied up in the Lee manner, with Malik Hassan's buoyant cinematography and Lee's patented brand of right-between-the-eyes moralizing. The movie stars Denzel Washington, who, when you stop to think about it, is probably the most consistently powerful actor of the 1990s. He scores once again with "He Got Game," but his role, far meatier in conception than the one played by NBA player Ray Allen, is shortchanged in midstream in favor of an endless parade of -- I'll give you two guesses -- OK, I'll tell you: The same idea repeated over and over again until you're ready to pull your hair out.

Washington plays Jake Shuttlesworth, a convicted murderer who's seen during the film's spectacularly conceived credit sequence sinking three-pointers in the Attica Prison exercise yard. Washington, by the way, can really play. It's a credit to Lee that he realized the movie would clank like a Shaquille O'Neal free-throw if the actors couldn't walk the walk as well as talk the talk, but what price athleticism?

A pretty big one, unfortunately. Ray Allen plays Jesus Shuttlesworth, Jake's son and the number-one ranked high school basketball player in the United States. The governor has offered to cut Jake's sentence short if he can convince his son to play for the Big Guy's alma mater after graduation. Jake will be released to a fleabag hotel in Coney Island, where he'll wander to the local courts each day for a week to try to talk Jesus into college, over the pros and the big money. At that point, Jesus will have to announce his decision to the press.

All you have to do is see Anthony Perkins throwing a baseball like the young Shirley Temple in "Fear Strikes Out" to realize that an actor who's a poor athlete can stink up a sports film in a big way, but Lee has unfortunately discovered that a non-acting athlete can do the same thing, only with more on-field (or, in this case, on-court) grace. Allen's role is not of the Gheorghe Muresan, "My Giant" variety. It's the pivotal performance in the film, a moral and economic treasure chest that gets jimmied by a huge variety of immoral crowbars as all kinds of leeches start trying to get Jesus on their side, or to get their hands into his potentially soon-to-be-overflowing pockets.

Allen gives it a real go, but a lot of his dialogue rings flat and just sits there. His first angry meeting with Washington should be a powerhouse, but you simply sense Allen's uneasiness in front of a camera overwhelming the moment. He does a better job than you or I probably could, by a mile, but that doesn't mean he's delivering the needed performance. Lee punctuates the film (too often, and, as is his way, too loudly) with the grandiose music of Aaron Copland, and that suggests an exalted level of emotion that Allen couldn't possibly generate. Not when he isn't playing basketball, anyway.

The idea of the movie, of course, is that conflicting forces are fighting for Jesus' soul as well as his game. The name "Jesus" is explained by Washington (in a beautifully written, touchingly delivered speech) as having been a tribute to Earl "Jesus" Monroe, the brilliant former NBA star. Even with this explanation, though, the ham-fisted symbolism of everybody calling this kid Jesus is exactly the kind of thing that Lee can't resist. It's all a little too earnest, a little too symbolic in an 11th grade English essay kind of way.

"Don't think we're getting away from people yelling into the camera ... or, more precisely, at you."

And don't think we're getting away from people yelling into the camera ... or, more precisely, at you. Lee repeatedly resorts to this tactic, and, when it's utilized in fake TV documentaries about Jesus (featuring real-life coaches and pro players), it works. But it otherwise breaks the barrier between the actors and the audience in an uncomfortable way. It feels like an aside, and, as I've already stated, this isn't dialogue, it's speeches and one-sided arguments. Lee should write and publish an op-ed magazine so that his actors can all start facing each other when he makes a movie.

Many of the scenes concerning the snakes in Jesus' life are badly written, especially one concerning a self-serving, over-wealthy sports agent who loquaciously marches the recruit around the grounds of a luxury-stuffed mansion as though he's a cross between Satan and Monty Hall. Much like the audience when the actors start yammering at the lens, Jesus just has to sit there and listen while the agent makes his pitch. There are also flashbacks to Jesus' dead mother (played by Lonette McKee) that don't really feel right. It's a step too far beyond the realm of the main story, as is a completely useless sub-plot concerning Washington's relationship with a Coney Island hooker, played by Milla Jovovich. Coney Island hookers, as you know, often look like teen-age super models.

With all that said, "He Got Game" is sometimes a vivid piece of filmmaking, and Lee displays an obvious passion for basketball. Fans should be thrilled by the game sequences, and non-fans may come to appreciate its balletic beauty. Tack on the rock-solid focus of Denzel Washington's performance, and you can have a pretty good time at the movies. Just steel yourself for a lot of yelling, and commit right now to forgiving more than a few screenwriting and directorial miscues. You've done it before, you can do it again.

"He Got Game" contains in-your-face female nudity, a heated threesome, and tons of bad language. The porcelain-skinned, black-haired beauty who sweet-talks and kisses Jesus during his first campus stroll is my friend, Kim Director. Way to go, there, Kim. Rated R. 131 minutes.

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