He Got Game

on May 01, 1998 by Wade Major
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   Like many of Spike Lee's films, "He Got Game" is an uneven mixture of brilliance and miscalculation spread across a wide spectrum of interpersonal and social issues. Unlike many of Lee's more recent efforts, however, his better instincts finally triumph, bringing to life a moving and often powerful story that wisely chooses to ask more questions than it answers.
   Denzel Washington stars as Jake Shuttlesworth, a convicted felon who is given a chance at a possible reprieve if he can convince his son Jesus (Milwaukee Bucks star Ray Allen), the #1 college basketball prospect in the country, to attend the governor's alma mater. The only hitch being that Jesus wants nothing to do with the man he used to call his father who, as it turns out, is doing time for the murder of Jesus' mother. Still, Jake agrees to make the attempt and a temporary release is secretively arranged, giving him precisely one week before the deadline to declare.
   Lee, an avid and avowed basketball fan, clearly relishes the chance to tell this story and to tell it with passion. The basketball scenes are rousingly staged and elegantly photographed, complemented by the strangely successful use of pre-existent Aaron Copland music in place of an original score. The relationship between Jake and Jesus, likewise, resonates with raw emotion and gritty realism. Most compelling of all, however, is Lee's unremitting portrayal of the gauntlet of temptations and moral pitfalls that await talented, college-bound athletes, a veritable inferno of sexual and material lures that at times seems inescapable.
   Unfortunately, the issue of Jesus' college dilemma is so broad that Lee is often unable to successfully balance it with the more intimate family concerns, detouring on at least two occasions into territory that is neither central nor significant to the story. An added subplot focusing on Jake's friendship with a hooker (Milla Jovovich) is so superfluous and cliched that it seems to have come from another movie entirely.
   Ultimately, of course, a Spike Lee movie is as much about style as anything else, and here Lee does not disappoint. For the most part, the film's look and execution is so gripping and imaginative that it's hard to fault Lee for the handful of camera and editorial tricks that don't quite work. Superlative contributions from cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed and veteran Lee editor Barry Alexander Brown combined with stunning sound design help make "He Got Game" as much a technical achievement as a narrative one.    Starring Denzel Washington, Ray Allen, Milla Jovovich, Ned Beatty and Jim Brown. Directed and written by Spike Lee. Produced by John Kilik and Spike Lee. A Buena Vista release. Drama. Rated R for pervasive language, strong sexuality, some drug content and violence. Running time: 137 min.
Tags: enzel Washington, Ray Allen, Milla Jovovich, Ned Beatty, Jim Brown, John Kilik, Spike Lee, A Buena Vista release, Drama, territory, atheletes, imaginative, social issues
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