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IN SHORT: Good Story. Great Acting. Too much hang time.
If Spike Lee has ever wanted to make a Universal Statement about America, he's done it in the title sequence of He's Got Game. In it, boys and girls and men and women of all shapes and sizes and colors play the native born game of basketball. From the mountains to the prairies to the ghettos around Coney Island, New York, where the story takes place.
As opposed to previous movies like Eddie and Celtic Pride, in which pro basketball is used to set up comedy, He Got Game deals with the time before the bright lights. It is the moment a high school athlete, marked with the potential for greatness by the sports press, must decide where to go (or even if to go to) to college. The kidlet in question is named Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen). Six years earlier, his father Jake (Denzel Washington) killed his mom, during an argument about b'ball. A year ago, when legal guardian uncle started (it is intimated) abusing his sister, Jesus moved became the premature head of his house and moved into an apartment arranged for by his coach. Where his money comes from, he doesn't know. What he does know; what everyone knows, is that he's gonna be a Pro Star.
All Jesus is is defined by b'ball. He's named after the nickname of Earl Monroe -- "I wanted to name him after the greatest" says his dad. There's $10,000 cash from an unnamed source sitting on his coach's desk waiting for him. There's a sports agent (who he, technically, can't speak with) offering him his choice of half a dozen cars as expensive as houses and a $36,000 platinum and diamond Rolex watch. There's some greasy pig street type called Big Time Willy who intimates that Jesus' continuing good health is because the word is out not to kneecap him. His girlfriend Lala (Rosario Dawson) is on the take. His uncle Bubba (Bill Nunn) is on the take. Jake, up in Attica, is offered a premature release from Attica if he can get Jesus to attend a certain state school. So dad is waffled out of jail with a week to change his son's mind.
And Jesus hates his dad.
As always, the strength in a Spike Lee screenplay is in the dialog. It crackles. The name "Jesus" is played for all it's worth, whether in mock prayer or as an obscenity or just and insane gospel-like chat in a fast cut montage by real life college coaches and sports announcers. The interplay between pro actor Denzel Washington and pro ball player Ray Allen (of the Milwaukee Bucks) is remarkable. There's a real sense of kinship seen on the screen. But the parole agents breathing down Jake's neck aren't threatening enough. The pressure on Jesus is pandemonium, not virtual pressure. Contrasted with Jesus' success, is the imminent failure of his much shorter b'ball playing cousin, "Booger" (Hill Harper). Lee doesn't have to wave this Statement in your face to make his point. It's very clear.
Problem is, as in most of Spike Lee's films, He Got Game runs long. Jammed in the middle of the film is a fairly useless subplot involving the whore next door (Milla Jovovich) and her Ike Turner-ish pimp "Sweetness" (Thomas Jefferson Byrd). It adds very little character development the story -- we can figure it out that, after 6 years in the Big House, Jake's gotta have it.
He Got Game is better paced than Malcolm X, but it still made Cranky restless. Unnecessary is a full length music video type addition at the end of the flick, but before the closing credits. The audience sat through it patiently, thinking something was going to happen. Nothing did. The score itself has a great great back-and-forth between classic pieces by Aaron Copland and new stuff by Public Enemy (using some samples of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" with new Stephen Stills vocals; and the chord progression of the 007 theme by John Barry).
Cranky thought the use of the 007 theme made a statement. Chuck D told Cranky not to think that much.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to He Got Game, he would have paid . . .
Lest you think me too harsh, Cranky really likes most of Spike Lee's work. Though the power of He Got Game is in the acting and the dialog, the movie as a whole doesn't hang together well. There's a small bit by Spike Lee Rep player John Turturro as recruiting college coach that's not to be missed.
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