In the chess-centric melodrama “ Life of a King ,” so much more is at stake than winning a board game. Inspired by the true story of Eugene Brown , a Washington ex-con who founded a chess club for at-risk teens in the 1990s, the film drives home two messages — think before you move and envision the endgame — with grace and a minimum of sentimentality.
Cuba Gooding Jr. is especially good as the central character. A look of perpetual worry, worn on the actor’s wrinkled forehead since his breakout performance in “Boyz n the Hood” (1991), serves him particularly well here. He plays a character who is not just struggling to go straight and to reconnect with his estranged children — one of whom is in jail — but also to find a grand purpose in life.
But Gooding’s acting is more than a mask. He exudes the fearless moral authority of a man who has nothing to lose and everything to gain, especially when he’s standing up to one of his unsavory former colleagues (Richard T. Jones), who keeps trying to tempt Eugene with the accoutrements of a life he’s eager to leave behind.
Although this is mainly Eugene’s story, he shares the spotlight with a kid named Tahime (Malcolm M. Mays). Tahime is a bright but deeply troubled figure whom we first encounter when Eugene, working briefly as a high-school janitor, is asked by the school’s principal (LisaGay Hamilton) to fill in as an emergency detention-hall monitor. In short order, detention hall becomes a de facto chess club for Tahime and several of the juvenile delinquents he hangs out with.
Chess, which Eugene picked up from his own prison mentor (Dennis Haysbert), offers Eugene — and the filmmakers — convenient life lessons about rules, perseverance and mindfulness. “Life of a King” is only too eager to impart them.
Tahime, as it turns out, is something of a prodigy on the board, but he has yet to learn how to translate chess’s metaphorical benefits into a form he can use in real life. Director Jake Goldberger, who co-wrote the script with David Scott and Dan Wetzel, works the game of chess as an allegory without working it into the ground. The film has a light hand despite its heavy subject matter.
Mays, in his feature debut, makes for an intense, brooding presence as Tahime. Like Eugene, his character is struggling with demons. His best friend, Clifton (Carlton Byrd), is a small-time drug dealer, and his mother (Paula Jai Parker) is a junkie with an abusive boyfriend.
As Eugene takes on more of a paternal role in Tahime’s life, the club becomes, literally and figuratively, a home away from home, relocating from the school to a ramshackle house dubbed the Big Chair Chess Club for its proximity to the famous Anacostia landmark. (Viewers outside Washington will almost certainly not get the reference, since the allusion is never explained.)
In general, “Life of a King” treads pretty familiar ground. Tahime’s rise as a player parallels a host of other underdog sports films. But a character’s tragic death drives home that this is a tale about survival as much as winning.
There are times when the film’s narrative gives short shrift to minor story details. How, for example, is Eugene able to pay for the house that becomes the chess club? And the transformation that occurs with Tahime’s mother — who inexplicably goes from obstructing her son’s chess career to being an enthusiastic supporter of it — is nothing short of miraculous.
Despite these hiccups, the film is an effective, even heartwarming, tale of one man’s commitment to teaching that playing by the rules is more important than winning.
★ ★ ★
(101 minutes, at the AMC Hoffman Center) is rated PG-13 for brief violence and some drug content. The film is being simultaneously released in theaters and through video on demand.