Spike Lee tackles the subject of basketball in his new movie, He Got Game. However, this isn’t your traditional basketball movie (in fact, aside from short clips, the game is only played once during the movie). Instead, the film works best as a relationship drama…detailing the estrangement between father and son.
Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington) has been imprisoned for the last six years, when the warden (Ned Beatty) offers him a deal which could grant him a pardon. It seems that Jake’s son, appropriately named Jesus (Ray Allen), has become the country’s top basketball prospect. If Jake can convince Jesus to enroll in the governor’s alma mater, Big State, the governor might find it in his heart to cut Jake’s time in prison short.
The problem is Jake and Jesus haven’t been on talking terms since Jake killed Jesus’ mother. Jesus has raised himself and his sister Mary (Zelda Harris), and wants nothing further to do with his father. Jake has one week to reconcile with his son before the NCAA deadline…and it won’t be an easy task.
With the deadline looming, everyone wants a piece of Jesus. His family, his coach, his schoolmates, and even his girlfriend all have angles, and there’s seemingly no one that Jesus can trust. It’s not a good time for a reconciliation.
The pressures of basketball have been explored several times before, but He Got Game does an adequate job at showing the temptations and dangers involved. However the more interesting story here is the family relationship between father and son.
But the film is easily sidetracked, offering up plenty of boring subplots that add little to the story. As a prime example, take Jake’s romantic involvement with Dakota (Milla Jovovich), a hooker with a heart of gold. What does this add to the movie? Another stereotypical character and an unexploited chance for Denzel’s acting skills (which could have been put to better use by furthering the story).
Denzel Washington delivers the strong performance he is known for, but the wildcard in the movie is Ray Allen. He performs better than your typical athlete-turned-actor, but (a fact which is particularly obvious when he’s paired up with someone of Denzel’s caliber) his talents truly reside on the court rather than the set. Spike Lee would have done his movie a favor if he hired an actor rather than an athlete.
The central plot of He Got Game, however, is still compelling enough to recommend the movie purely on its own merits. As a Spike Lee movie it is a little disappointing. It’s not among his best work, but neither is it down among his worst.