Movie review, 'Like Mike'

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The sports fantasy is a venerable movie genre, and it's given its due in this NBA-dusted fairy tale. "Like Mike" blends the durable, heartstring-tugging, underdog-makes-good plots from family-friendly sports movies such as "Angels in the Outfield" and "The Bad News Bears" with the wide-eyed, idealistic orphans of "Annie." The result is predictable sentiment from first shot to last, but also sweet and likable fun.

A screen star is born in pint-sized rapper Lil' Bow Wow, who has looks and charisma to spare as 13-year-old orphan Calvin Cambridge. He's shuttered away in a group home for unwanted kids that's run by a smarmy, clueless administrator, Stan Bittleman (Crispin Glover, odd and watchable as ever).

When Calvin finds a pair of beat-up sneakers with the faded initials "MJ" inside, they become his talisman, turning him from a nobody into his idol, Michael Jordan. In other words, the kid goes from zero to hero in the time it takes to make a dazzling slam-dunk at a promotional NBA halftime event. The fictional L.A. Knights, to boost sagging attendance for the lackluster team, sign the kid to a contract. But only when outfitted in his ruby slippers - in the form of battered white-and-blue Nikes - can Calvin spin his on-court magic. Off the court, he's just a kid in need of family and love.

"Like Mike" lays out its structure and its sugarcoating in plain view. It's obvious from the tip-off that the lonely orphan who's afraid of the dark will bond with Tracey (Morris Chestnut), the Knights player who's afraid to fly, even on the team's swanky private plane. Tracey reluctantly draws the assignment from Coach Wagner (Robert Forster, crusty and charming) to serve as Calvin's mentor. Of course, Tracey happens to be in need of a dad, too. The big brother/little brother conflict that eventually morphs into a bond between Tracey and Calvin - the two engage in a loose and lively rap duet - won't surprise anyone. What is surprising is how likable performers and a script that aims squarely for the heart without pretensions can make such cliches work.

The real story of "Like Mike" isn't the orphans' heroic rescue of the prized sneakers, or the lessons about teamwork and family that the film lays on with a trowel. It's the on-court action and the cameos by real NBA stars such as Allen Iverson, Jason Kidd, Alonzo Mourning and Karl Malone. It's fun to see Calvin as the stand-in for every sports fantasy, even adult ones: Not only does the diminutive kid get to wear the jazzy uniform and make the winning shot, but he gets to request autographs from rival players right at center court.

"Like Mike" doesn't win any points for originality. It does succeed by following a feel-good formula with a winning style, and by offering its target audience of urban kids some welcome role models and optimism. Even though Calvin's basketball triumphs come courtesy of magic, the film is smart enough to let him learn the most valuable lessons about friendship the old-fashioned way - all by himself.

3 stars
"Like Mike"
Directed by John Schultz; written by Michael Elliot, Jordan Moffet; photographed by Shawn Maurer; edited by Peter Berger, John Pace; production designed by Arlan Jay Vetter; music by Richard Gibbs; produced by Barry Josephson, Peter Heller. A Twentieth Century Fox release; opens Wednesday, July 3. Running time: 1:40. MPAA rating: PG (brief mild language).
Calvin Cambridge - Lil' Bow Wow
Tracey Reynolds - Morris Chestnut
Murph - Jonathan Lipnicki
Reg - Brenda Song
Stan Bittleman - Crispin Glover
Coach Wagner - Robert Forster
Frank Bernard - Eugene Levy

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