Two men are shooting baskets in the opening montage of Spike Lee's "He Got Game"--two men with similar fluid outside shots, not surprising for a father and a son. The younger man is a gifted high school senior from Coney Island, his father a convicted murderer imprisoned in Attica in upstate New York. The city game was a factor in their separation, and now it's going to join their worlds once again.
Given that writer-director Lee is one of the most visible of the New York Knicks' celebrity fans, what's surprising is not that he made a film about the sport he cares so much about but that he waited so long. As with much of Lee's work, the director's passion is a source of great strength but it also occasionally hamstrings matters by encouraging him to include more than comfortably fits on the screen.
For single-focus filmmaking is not Lee's style. He is, thankfully, an ambitious director, someone who is prone to sending his films off into several different areas simultaneously. "He Got Game" is always watchable and often compelling, but it is also erratic and unwieldy, the result, perhaps, of having too much to say, of trying to do too much with the ball too much of the time.
As has become traditional with Lee's films, "He Got Game" starts with an involving credits sequence, and this one, with its shots of determined young men and women playing basketball in all kinds of environments across the country, strikes a note of almost poetic love for the game that is a constant theme. Lee's unexpected use of big chunks of composer Aaron Copland's sweeping music throughout the film points to his belief in the quintessentially Americanness of both the game and the story he's telling.
Lee almost immediately links his graceful tributes to the sport with a pure pulp story line. Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington), with 15 years left on his sentence, is called into the office of Warden Wyatt (Ned Beatty). The subject of the conversation is Jake's son Jesus Shuttlesworth.
Jesus, who plays for the real-life Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, is the No. 1 high school prospect in the country, labeled "Jesus of Coney Island" by Sports Illustrated. And celebrated college coaches (many of them, like John Thompson and the recently retired Dean Smith, making cameo appearances in the film) are just about drooling to get him on their team.
The governor, however, happens to be a major fan of mythical Big State University. If Jake can convince Jesus to commit to the school, his sentence might be reduced. With a week left before Jesus has to make a decision, Jake is clandestinely let out of prison in the care of two parole officers (one played by the veteran actor-athlete Jim Brown) and charged with getting his son to sign on the dotted line for Big State.
Washington is so consistently effective an actor that it hardly needs be said that his excellent performance as the beleaguered Jake carries the film. What is of interest is the way Washington makes subtle changes in his usually polished persona to be convincing as a man who has enough menace and violence in him to have landed in prison and to have survived six-plus years inside.
Playing son Jesus is a bona fide basketball All-American, the youthful-looking 22-year-old Ray Allen of the Milwaukee Bucks. Serious enough about acting to have devoted eight weeks of his off-season to working with a coach, Allen brings a verisimilitude to his part that is essential to yet another one of Lee's aims, the detailing of the pressures brought on highly coveted young athletes.
Some of "He Got Game's" strongest sequences involve what hard guy Big Time Willie (Lee regular Roger Guenveur Smith) calls "the Pygmy vultures" that swarm around someone in line for a big payday. No one can be completely trusted, not the coach, not girlfriend Lala Bonilla (Rosario Dawson), not even Uncle Bubba (Bill Nunn), desperate for the chance to just "wet my beak a little bit" in the below-the-table wealth everyone is sure Jesus' college or professional signing is going to mean.
As if all this wasn't more than enough to construct a film out of, "He Got Game" pulls in two other strands, one of which is a miscalculation. Jake is placed in a hotel room next to Dakota ("The Fifth Element's" Milla Jovovich), who is, no kidding, the umpteenth movie hooker with an untarnished heart. Nothing that happens to these two isn't the weariest of cliches, and the film would have been much the stronger if this entire subplot were surgically removed.
The film's final element, its examination of the dynamics of family and the possibilities for reconciliation, is one of its strongest. For it turns out that the death Jake is in prison for causing is his own wife Martha's (Lonette McKee in flashbacks), a situation that has completely estranged Jesus and led to difficulties with Jake's young daughter Mary (a charming Zelda Harris). Though "He Got Game" is periodically awkward and unruly, it benefits, as many of Lee's films do, from the director's determination to connect with the troublesome issues of the real world. Too few American directors work with Lee's kind of social immediacy, and that makes his films, flawed and didactic though they sometimes are, essential viewing.
He Got Game, 1998. R for pervasive language, strong sexuality, some drug content and violence. A 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks production, released by Touchstone Pictures. Director Spike Lee. Producers John Kilik, Spike Lee. Screenplay by Spike Lee. Cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed. Editor Barry Alexander Brown. Costumes Sandra Hernandez. Music Aaron Copland. Production design Wynn Thomas. Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes. Denzel Washington as Jake Shuttlesworth. Ray Allen as Jesus Shuttlesworth. Milla Jovovich as Dakota Burns. Rosario Dawson as Lala Bonilla. Hill Harper as Coleman "Booger" Sykes.