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He Got Game

movie review by
Gary Johnson

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Most of us have seen the evidence of Spike Lee's devotion to basketball--the camera shots of him on the nightly news sitting courtside at NBA basketball games. This is a game he loves dearly, and his new movie, He Got Game, conveys that love with conviction and sincerity. As the opening montage of basketball players shows, he loves the game for its beauty, as we see in slow-motion shots of players twisting and leaping through the air. With ballet-like motions, players move toward the hoop, the basketball spinning off their fingers, tenderly, gracefully. This opening montage isn't concerned with NBA stars. It's concerned with players shooting hoops against barns and against crates nailed to poles. It's concerned with male and female players of all races. It's concerned with a sport that people play as if possessed. He posits basketball, not baseball, as the great American game, a game that represents a true melting pot of American athleticism.

He Got Game frequently has the makings of becoming one of Spike Lee's best movies. This is certainly terrain that he feels at home in. But the movie is so devoted to basketball that the characterizations frequently get skimped. This is a movie about basketball first and people second. And I suppose your reaction to the movie may largely be based upon your love of basketball. If you love basketball like Spike Lee loves basketball, you'll probably look past the weakly drawn lead characters. But I wanted to know the characters better. While Spike Lee does devote serious time to developing the characters, it's hard to make sense of their lives because we see them (with only brief exceptions) in the aftermath of the events that have scarred their lives.

I wanted to know more about Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington) and his relationship to his estranged son Jesus (played by NBA star Ray Allen). They become pulled together--after a six year separation--when the state Governor finds out that Jake's son is the #1 high school basketball prospect in the country. Jesus is practically the second coming of Michael Jordan. The Governor gives Jake a temporary parole, with promise of a commuted sentence, if Jake can talk Jesus into signing a letter of intent with the Governor's alma mater, Big State. So with a Lone Jack electronic detection device strapped to his ankle, Jake starts hanging around the old neighborhood, hoping to convince his son--who refers to him as a "stranger"--to listen to his pleas. It's a tough sell for Jake.

The movie supplies us with some flashbacks to scenes when Jesus was just a boy, when Jake (who was a mean basketball player in his own right) pushed his son to become everything that he had failed to become himself. "It's the will of the man, not the skill of the man," he says. But the screenplay only gives us a generic situation. Jake pushes his son, sure, but where exactly does his mania come from? We can only ascribe generic answers to that question. The movie also gives us a generic relationship that develops between Jake and a hooker (played sensitively by Milla Jovovich, who you might remember from The Fifth Element).

Where the movie does succeed, and it succeeds gloriously, is in its depiction of the storm brewing around Jesus' decision about which college he will attend--or will he attend college at all? Maybe he'll jump directly to the NBA. Everyone wants a piece of Jesus. In one of the movie's funniest developments, his Uncle Bubba (Bill Nunn, who played Radio Raheem in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing), who raised Jesus and Jesus' sister after Jake was locked away in prison, tries to convince Jesus that he deserves a piece of the pie: "I think it's only right we be compensated for the sacrifices we made," he says (referring to himself and his family).

Meanwhile, Jesus gets a similar message from his girlfriend, who is so certain that he will leave her once he hits the big time that she starts scheming to make her money rightaway: "Why shouldn't I get paid?" she says. Jesus' high school coach is offering Jesus bribes to choose a certain college. And a fast talking agent is ready to sell Jesus' talents to the highest bidding NBA team. Everyone wants a piece of Jesus. The pressure is so intense that it's a wonder anyone in his position can emerge with their ideals intact. This story is played out against the alluring decadence of Coney Island, where red and blue neon lights glow, where the Cyclone and Turbo Jet beckon would-be passengers, where the Snake Girl and other sideshow attractions beckon onlookers to step inside for closer looks. This is a great setting for this story of greed and desperation.

In addition, the music of legendary American composer Aaron Copeland provides the musical score (including such famous works as "Fanfare for the Common Man," "Rodeo: 'Hoe Down,'" and "Appalachian Spring"). Copeland's music helps convey the poetry of basketball while rap group Public Enemy provides the harsher rhythms of the street. One of the highlights of the movie is Public Enemy's performance of the title song "He Got Game," which samples Stephen Stills' legendary "For What It's Worth" and its evocative, chiming riff.

Denzel Washington is excellent as Jake Shuttlesworth. I only wish the screenplay had given him more of a character to work with. Ray Allen delivers an admirable performance as Jesus, but he's clearly not on the same acting level as Washington. In comparison, Allen is flat. Not bad, but the movie required someone who could actually go up against Washington. While Allen easily does that once a basketball is in his hand, he can't meet the Washington's dramatic pitch. However, He Got Game is filled with outstanding supporting performances, Milla Jovovich and Bill Nunn are both excellent. In addition, Jim Brown turns in a surly and funny performance as a prison guard assigned to tail Jake. Roger Guenveur Smith gives an assured, arrogant (and compelling) performance as a small-time hood who thinks he's "Big Time" (and that's his name). And Hill Harper is pathetic but hilarious as Jesus' devoted cousin, "Booger" Sykes.

He Got Game is a surprisingly funny movie (considering the seriousness of the material) that never quite delivers a strong dramatic punch, but it contains some of the best individual scenes of Spike Lee's career.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

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