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On May 1, 1998, Touchstone Pictures unveiled director Spike Lee’s drama He Got Game — featuring Denzel Washington, Ray Allen and Milla Jovovich — in theaters. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:
There’s some seriously virtuoso filmmaking on display in He Got Game, which easily could have been subtitled “Spike Lee’s Hoop Dreams.”
As a director, Lee continues to hone his considerable craft and is unafraid to take creative risks along the way. But after leaving the scripting to others for his past few feature outings, he has returned to the word processor — and it’s evident his screenwriting abilities haven’t kept pace.
Plagued by the awkward exposition and lapses into didactic heavy-handedness that often crept into his previous work, the picture never quite nails the artistic slam dunk that is so often within its grasp.
A towering performance from Denzel Washington and the b-ball backdrop could draw some spectators in its opening week, but it’s unlikely Game‘s got legs.
Lee certainly has an intriguing premise: Prisoner Jake Shuttlesworth (Washington) is offered a reduced sentence if he can persuade his long-estranged, high school hoops star son Jesus (Ray Allen) to sign with the governor’s alma mater.
Released on one-week parole with a tracking device clamped to his ankle, Shuttlesworth finds himself back on his Coney Island turf after 6 1/2 years behind bars; but with the daunting task ahead of him, freedom turns out to be a relative term.
It’s gradually revealed that Shuttlesworth is serving a 15-year sentence for killing his wife — an accident for which his son has understandably never forgiven him. Jake’s sudden arrival stirs up a lot of unpleasant memories for Jesus, even as he is seduced with sweetened scholarship offers.
It ultimately comes down to a high-stakes game of one-on-one. If the father wins, the son will sign a letter of intent to attend Big State, thereby hastening Jake’s release. If Jesus wins, Dad agrees to never again attempt to make contact with him or his younger sister.
Basketball is a subject very near to Lee’s heart, and he (along with frequent collaborators DP Malik Hassan Sayeed and editor Barry Alexander Brown) choreographs the net navigation with a reverent grace. Particularly arresting is a final, unspoken, long-distance father-son reconciliation that is as movingly poetic as anything Lee’s ever put on film.
Which makes the script problems even more frustrating. While Washington’s commanding performance takes full advantage of his quiet intensity, Lee’s words never adequately provide him the opportunity to show sufficient remorse over the accidental killing of his wife and mother of his children.
Milwaukee Bucks guard and rookie actor Allen, meanwhile, shows sensitive focus within a limited range as Washington’s conflicted son.
Lee’s female characters prove more problematic, as most (with the exception of the dead mom and Jesus’ little sister) use sex for personal gain — from the abused hooker with the heart of gold (Milla Jovovich) to Jesus’ conniving girlfriend (Rosario Dawson) to the bevy of perky, white campus groupies who lust after the star players.
Writing aside, Lee continues to make gutsy creative decisions, such as cobbling together an entire score from snatches of Aaron Copland’s catalog. The late composer-conductor’s pop brand of folk opera is certainly an inspired choice, particularly when juxtaposed with a selection of strong new rap tracks by Public Enemy.
Hopefully next time, Spike will leave the words to others. — Michael Rechtshaffen, originally published April 27, 1998.
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