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HE GOT GAME

by: Scott Renshaw

As well-known as Spike Lee may be as a film-maker or spokesman for African-American causes, he may be equally well-known as a basketball fan. Most Americans first saw Lee's work in Nike commercials he made with Michael Jordan a decade ago, reprising his She's Gotta Have It character of Mars Blackmon. Since then Lee has become a much-lauded director, but he has also become a vocal court-side fixture at New York Knicks, moonlighting as director and narrator of Nike ads supporting women's basketball. Make no mistake, Spike loves his hoops.

I can't help but feel that love clouded Lee's judgment as he put together He Got Game. The story deals with the troubled relationship between convicted felon Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington) and his teenage son Jesus (with the Biblical, not Spanish, pronunciation, and played by Milwaukee Bucks guard Ray Allen). As Jake finds himself out of prison after nearly six years, he tries to re-connect with his son and daughter (Zelda Harris), only to find Jake deeply embittered and unable to forgive. Jesus also happens to be the #1 high school basketball recruit in the nation, and his father is on the streets again only because the governor wants Jesus to attend his alma mater. If Jake can get Jesus to sign a letter of intent to play at Big State within a week, the governor may grant Jake an early parole. Unfortunately, Jake is competing with plenty of other people - Jake's uncle (Bill Nunn), his girlfriend (Rosario Dawson), agents, college coaches and various hangers-on - who all hope that Jesus will show them the money if they show it to him first.

The corrupt war to recruit top high school athletes isn't exactly fresh subject matter, having already been explored in the 1994 film Blue Chips. Lee puts a humorous spin on some of the ridiculous excesses of the process, but his real chance at originality would have been putting us inside the head of the young men, often from impoverished backgrounds, facing these dizzying opportunities. That's somewhere Lee and first-time actor Ray Allen never take us, allowing us to see the insanity without allowing us to understand how Jesus really feels about it. Allen looks comfortable enough on the screen, but his character is too passive, so fundamentally decent he never seems fazed by anything. Lee has a lot of stuff he wants to show us; Jesus's role is more or less to absorb it all.

As it turns out, Lee has so much he wants to show us that he keeps getting sidetracked from the one undeniable strength of He Got Game - the relationship between Jake and Jesus. Washington is superb in a pair of dynamite schoolyard scenes, relentlessly driving young Jesus to improve his game in a flashback sequence, then competing with Jesus in a one-on-one game. Both scenes tear into the heart of Jake's sense of his own lost opportunities, burning with the intense competition between father and son and unspoken desires to return to simpler times.

If Lee had centered on that relationship, He Got Game might have been a truly memorable film. Yet Lee keeps turning his attention elsewhere - a strange sub-plot involving Jake's relationship with a young prostitute (Milla Jovovich), pointless banter between Jake and his two parole officers. Mostly, however, he's distracted by basketball, blasting heroic Aaron Copland compositions at every slow-motion image of schoolyard ball and piling on the cameos of NBA players and college coaches. There's enough thematic material here for two films; Lee decides to make them both simultaneously. The resulting film feels scattershot, heavy on interesting images and ideas but light on cohesiveness. Somewhere in there is an engrossing family drama, often relegated to the nosebleed seats while Lee keeps pulling us courtside to watch an inner city story with a basketball backdrop turned into a basketball story.

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