Spike Lee is one of the most dividing names currently working in films. Just about everyone has an opinion on Lee -- for good or bad -- but somewhere in there around the strong opinions and controversial comments is a very talented director. One of his best was obviously an important film for the diehard basketball fan, 1998's He Got Game.
A high school senior living in Brooklyn and caring for his sister (Zelda Harris), Jesus Shuttlesworth (NBA star Ray Allen) is a basketball star and the No. 1 recruit in the country. The world is smothering Jesus as he makes his future plans. Does he forgo his college eligibility and declare for the NBA Draft or does he decide on a university to attend? It's a decision that could cost or produce millions depending on how it works out. It's a decision that the Governor -- an alum of Big State University -- is interested in. He cuts a deal with Jesus' father, Jake (Denzel Washington), currently wasting away in Attica. Jake will be "released" for a week with one goal; get Jesus to commit to Big State, and his sentence will be severely shortened.
I'm a fan of Spike Lee, not a diehard fan, but his films are always interesting. Now whether you take them as good or bad interesting, that's a different story, but I typically enjoy his films. However you feel about Lee, I think this is a film where you have to give him credit. 'Game' tries to accomplish a lot in its storytelling, and for the most part, it accomplishes that. It's frightening in Lee's ability to make a film that so accurately predicts the future, in this case the business of sports. Jesus' decision in theory just effects him, but that's a naive way to look at it. Everyone in the world and business of sports will be dramatically affected by his plans. Look at 'Game' in 2012, and the things we see are familiar, normal, everyday things we'd see on ESPN. Not so much in 1998. Think LeBron James, and you've got this movie.
One of Lee's trademarks as a director is his style, and that's evident here. The opening montage shows basketball (and sports on a bigger level) at its purest, kids and teenagers playing from a wide variety of backgrounds and locations. They play out of love because they want to. Watch it HERE starting at :30. A monologue later from one shady guy (Roger Guenveur Smith) who claims to have Jesus' best intentions at heart is frightening in its accuracy. Everyone Jesus has ever met is about to become his best friend. What should be a pure, innocent and personal decision -- a 17, 18 year old kid picking his college choice -- becomes something dirty. Everyone involved starts to see the $ all over Jesus. It's sad that this is where sports has gone, but it's the truth of the business.
When this movie is clicking on all cylinders, it's that cynical nature that works. The most effective dramatic, emotional moments come from the interaction and completely shattered relationship between Jake and Jesus. We learn why Jake is in Attica, and more importantly why Jesus despises him. The performances from Washington and Allen are the best things going for 'Game.' When has Washington ever not delivered a worthy performance? None I can think of. His Jake is not an easy character to like, but that's the beauty of it. He knows he made mistakes, but he also did certain things the right way. The best thing going is we're not sure of his intentions. Does he want Jesus to go to Big State because it's what is best for him or because it will get him a reduced sentence? Playing Jesus, Allen (a Milwaukee Bucks star at the time) delivers a natural, heartfelt performance, better than just about 99% of all athletes' performances in a movie. Oh, and his jump shot is disgustingly beautiful to watch.
There are moments of perfection in this father-son relationship. The movie is at its strongest when focusing on this reconnecting, but certain scenes ring truer than others. The best scenes are those of Jake and Jesus on a basketball court. In quick, little snippets, we see Jake pushing Jesus as a little boy to get better. Later, we see an encounter where maybe Jake pushes too far, and a 12-year old Jesus responding with frustration like a 12-year old should. The best scene -- and one of my all-time favorites -- is a one-on-one game between Jake and Jesus as time runs out on Jake's "mission." Jesus is a significantly more skilled player now, but it's still a battle, Jake giving him nothing. Watch it in its entirety HERE. Stylized, message, story, I think it's one of those rare perfect scenes.
Before I forget, there are some other halfway decent actors/actresses around. Milla Jovovich plays Dakota, a prostitute Jake meets, while Rosario Dawson is particularly memorable as LaLa, Jesus' girlfriend who is up to something. 32-year old Hill Harper is effective playing Booger, Jesus' cousin and teammate. Jim Brown and Joseph Lyle Taylor have some fun as Jake's ever-present parole officers with Ned Beatty playing the warden at Attica cutting a deal with Jake. Bill Nunn is a slimy scene-stealer as Jesus' money-grubbing uncle with Michelle Shay as his more thoughtful aunt. Also look for Lee favorite John Turturro as a coach pulling out all the stops to recruit Jesus. Sports fans should also look for countless cameos from Michael Jordan to Shaq to Reggie Miller with countless coaches and TV personalities making an appearance.
Say what you want about Spike Lee, but he's a talented director, and this is one of his best. Give it a shot. I don't know how long this link will stay up there, but check out the full movie HERE at Youtube.
He Got Game <---trailer (1998): *** 1/2 /****