He Got Game Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998

You do your part... you deliver your son, and Governor Cornell will do his part.
He Got Game Poster

In his latest film, "He Got Game", director Spike Lee ("Get on the Bus") lays bare the seedy side of the college recruitment process where colleges and professional teams dangle lucrative contracts and incentives to promising athletes. However, unlike Lee's previous films, he eschews the often-overpowering rhetoric and pontificating for a strong dramatic core. In the case of "He Got Game", it is the reconciliation between a father and his emotionally-aloof son.

You got an 'A' in science? What are you studying?
Cells... cells or something.
Cells... yeah, I'm studying cells too.

Jesus Shuttleworth (NBA player Ray Allen) is the top-rated high school basketball player in the United States, and every college is eager to sign him up. When he is not being interviewed by the media, or dodging the question of which college he is going to attend, he looks after his sister Mary (Zelda Harris). Meanwhile, Jesus' father, Jake (Denzel Washington, last seen in "Fallen"), spends his days shooting hoops in the exercise yard of Attica prison, where he is serving time for the murder of his wife. However, because of his son's popularity, the warden ("Homicide: Life on the Street" alumnus Ned Beatty) calls Jake into his office with an under-the-table deal: a reduced sentence in exchange for convincing his son to enroll at Big State, the Governor's alma mater. In order to facilitate Jake's completion of the assignment, the warden gives Jake some pocket money and a week of freedom. However, Jake finds his chance at a reduced sentence a more difficult than he expects when his son refuses to speak to him, and when he connects with an abused prostitute (Milla Jovovich of "The Fifth Element") living in the rented room next-door.

You're black, I'm white, this is green. When it comes to making business decisions, the only color that matters is green.

Despite the insider's view of the high-stakes world of basketball recruitment, where insincerity comes in many shapes and sizes, the core of "He Got Game" lies in the dynamic between Jake and Jesus. Jake regrets allowing his overzealous ambitions for his son to poison their relationship, while Jesus resents his father for everything-- the late nights on the basketball court where the pressure to succeed was overbearing, the appellation which drew derision from his childhood peers, and for the untimely death of his mother. However, Jesus also finds that the people around him, who supposedly care about him, only care about themselves, motivated only by wanting a part of the spoils that come with Jesus' stardom. In a sense, Jake also wants a piece of Jesus' fame, though only as a means towards reconciliation and forgiveness, versus the materialistic rewards that Jesus' other vested interests serve. Despite the gimmicky resolution, there is poignancy and revelation in Lee's portrayal of the fragile rapprochement between these two characters.

You're the first Shuttleworth to leave the projects. I was the one who put the ball in your hand. I put the ball in your crib.

Technically, "He Got Game" is s superbly directed and energetic film. Lee has blended the schools of cinematic and documentary filmmaking to create the look of this film, resulting in a very engaging visceral experience. The sumptuous visuals are counterpointed with arresting cutaways, what I call 'statement shots', that speak to the points being emphasized in Lee's screenplay, similar to the style that Oliver Stone uses in his films ("Natural Born Killers", "U-Turn"), only with more restraint being exercised and with a sense of purpose. And though the def soundtrack is dominated by Public Enemy's brand of urban rhythms, Lee does make some unconventional but successful choices for incidental music, adding to the overall ambiance of the film.

Performance-wise, Washington is compelling and a pleasure to watch in his portrayal of Jake. Allen, in his first feature film role, handles the material reasonably well, though there were a couple of scenes where his abilities fell short of the material. "He Got Game" also boasts many cameos by many well-known sports personalities, including Shaquille O'Neal, Michael Jordan, and prominent college basketball coaches, as well as some appearances by notable thesps (John Turturro of "The Big Lebowski" is great as the over-the-top U Tech coach, and Jim Brown of "Original Gangstas" is deliciously belligerent as Jake's parole officer).

You're just like everyone else.
Everyone else is not your father.

Spike Lee is a big basketball fan, but he tempers his enthusiasm for the sport with his own cynical perspective on what goes on off the court and behind closed doors. It is an interesting exploration of the arena of professional athletes, though Lee manages to 'keep it real' by having the themes dealt with universal in nature. Because of these different aspects, and the compelling and emotional story, "He Got Game" is probably the most mainstream-accessible of all Lee's films. Definitely worth a look.

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