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At the Altar of the Game

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 1, 1998

  Movie Critic


He Got Game Denzel Washington stars in "He Got Game." (Touchstone)

Director:
Spike Lee
Cast:
Denzel Washington;
Ray Allen;
Milla Jovovich;
Jennifer Esposito;
Ned Beatty;
Charles Barkley;
Rosario Dawson;
Bill Nunn;
John Turturro
Running Time:
2 hours, 16 minutes
R
Under 17 restricted


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He got too much movie.

That's the scoring total on Spike Lee's "He Got Game," which ultimately must be judged a mild disappointment. It's too jampacked with subplots, suggesting an insane ambition to make not just the great American father-son basketball movie but also the great American sports recruiting movie, the great American prostitute-redemption movie, the great American domestic-violence movie and the great American exploitation-of-color-by-the-Man movie. Whew!

To its credit, the film does avoid the cliches of every single sports movie ever made: There's no big game, no come-from-behind win against improbable odds. It's not about sports as wish fulfillment for middle-age couch potatoes but sports as workplace culture and vernacular of physical expressiveness. It worships at the altar of the game, and finds in the drive of men to basket a kind of body jazz of high art and total belief.

But even in that aspiration there are cavils. To begin with, the film is possibly too narrowly focused to achieve anything beyond its own particulars. It turns out not to be the Big One: That is, it's not about basketball as the focus of dreams in the African American community, the tension between the possibility of the game as vehicle of deliverance and the probability of it as a narcotic, consuming young lives in the thousands and spitting them out as bitter never-made-its.

That movie's already been made, and it was great: "Hoop Dreams."

"He Got Game" focuses on the apex of that vast pyramid of aspiration, sweat, discipline and prayer that makes the whole system work, for better or worse: a young man who at 18 has "got game" and how. He is that one in a million, and as played by Milwaukee Buck Ray Allen, Jesus Shuttlesworth is a super kid: He's got all the moves, can go to left or right hand with equal aplomb, hits from outside or floats through the ozone to the hoop, gets bigger as the clock gets smaller. But he's decent, too, and has taken on the responsibility of raising his younger sister.

It's to Allen's great credit that he's able to make this paragon seem even remotely human. Though not without a pride akin to arrogance when it comes to his own abilities and the privileges to which they entitle him, Allen makes us see that Jesus still has a soul. He clings to the shard of his shattered family – his sister (Zelda Harris) and her ultimate good – and whatever lies ahead for him, it must include her.

But Lee's view of this young man's dilemma is less moving than it might be. What we see is an embarrassment of riches, an abundance of possibility. It must indeed be difficult to have so many folks wanting a piece of you, but how common a problem can this be? No more than 10 or 12 young men a year undergo such an ordeal by temptation, and while Lee makes it sometimes quite amusing – Jesus's visit to a fast-talking agent's palatial spread is the comic high point of the movie, particularly as Al Palagonia plays the agent, a smear of well-dressed slime only vaguely recognizable as human – it's not the sort of drama to which one can make an empathetic connection, which is why there are so few masterpieces about prosperous people. Their lives may be just as painful as ours but, really, who cares?

Rather, the emotional core of the film is an Oedipal drama between Jesus and his father, Jake (Denzel Washington), a convict who is released from jail for a brief time after having made a Faustian deal with the Man; he will try and press his son into playing for "Big State," the governor's alma mater. If he gets the son's signature on a letter of intent, his time in prison will be significantly lessened. But given the nature of his crime, it's preposterous that he'd be the one sent to try and bring this off – after all, Jake killed Jesus's beloved mother.

Washington's Jake is the movie's best performance, but it's also the movie's biggest problem. He makes us feel the father's pain and yearning for some rapprochement with the son he knows he's failed. That much is real, but little else is: We never learn a thing about him, we never see him deal with the crime he committed and he never understands that his coaching of the son was alcohol-fueled and close to abusive.

Washington is so good he almost gets away with it. It helps enormously that he's got some game too, so that when in the film's best dramatic sequence father and son go one-on-one, it's Washington's athletic skills that make the scene work. Here, the story becomes infused with larger significance: What we witness isn't just a little one-on-one, it's an epic confrontation between the generations in a primal arena, the stakes gigantically high.

But why does Jake become involved with the prostitute (Milla Jovovich) next door in his cheap hotel? That's a subplot that goes nowhere. Why does Lee waste so much time evoking the parole officers Spivey (scary Jim Brown) and Crudup (Joseph Lyle Taylor), and then do nothing with them? Why does the movie have so many damned holes in it? Why doesn't it deliver? It's like a seventh game of an NBA playoff that finishes up 110-78.

"He Got Game" does have one fabulous sequence. It's early, during and after the credits, a kind of tour of the landscape of American basketball, set to the mythopoeic grandeur of Aaron Copland's most self-consciously American music. Everybody got game: the homeboys elbowing for space to work their magic above the city asphalt, the lanky farmers' sons tossing in long jumpers in the barnyard, the little boys and girls who can't shoot or dribble but can play. All are majestic against high, wide skies and the sense of space and freedom that is this country. This sequence, somehow, makes the poetry of basketball seem a national treasure. It's the purity of beauty and the beauty of purity all in the arc of a ball toward an orange hoop hung 10 feet above the surface of the planet.

   

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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