Throwing Bricks 

Spike Lee, off his game

Spike Lee, off his game

By even the most charitable critical standards, it’s been a horrible year thus far for African American cinema. Such creative monstrosities as The Players Club and Caught Up have been the norm. Even A-list celebrities like Jada Pinkett Smith and Eddie Murphy, who have the clout to stretch their talents, are churning out unambitious fare such as Woo and a remake of Doctor Doolittle. “I don’t want to sound like I’m the gatekeeper of black cinema,” Spike Lee observed recently in the Village Voice, “but c’mon. A lot of these films that are coming out are just bullshit.”

That’s certainly true, but their low quality has only raised expectations higher than usual for Lee’s 12th film, appropriately titled He Got Game. Not only does it mark the screen reunion of Lee and Denzel Washington—who previously starred in Lee’s erratic but intriguing Mo’ Better Blues and his spectacular Malcolm X—it marks a long-awaited exposé/overview of basketball by a director whose passion for the game is renowned.

Nevertheless, while He Got Game proves enjoyable, at times visually delightful, and boasts a wonderful soundtrack that ambitiously juxtaposes fresh hip-hop from Public Enemy with classical fare from Aaron Copland, it’s among Spike Lee’s least arresting and memorable ventures. It doesn’t have the intensity and thematic focus that made Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X modern classics.

He Got Game focuses on a week in the life of Jesus Shuttlesworth, supposedly the nation’s hottest high-school basketball prospect. Jesus, nicely played by Milwaukee Bucks guard Ray Allen in his acting debut, has to decide whether to take the instant riches available by going pro, or whether to opt for college. If he chooses school, he must also determine where he will matriculate—which is where his father, Jake, played by Washington, comes in.

Jake has been in prison nearly seven years, jailed for an accidental killing that tore the Shuttlesworth family apart. The son and father have been estranged ever since, but the warden offers Jake a chance for early release. All he must do is get his son to sign a letter of intent with the governor’s alma mater before the week is out. The remainder of the film covers the tense reunion between father and son, as the pressure mounts on Jesus to pick a school.

In the edgy confrontations between Jake and Jesus, Lee captures the conflict inherent in father-son relationships. But He Got Game works best depicting the ugly side of “big-time” college athletics, especially the overwhelming temptations of cash and flesh used to dazzle prospects. Sports agents, rival coaches, and potential teammates try to appeal to Jesus’ wallet, his family, his ego—even his libido. Not all these scenes are successful, however. Even though an orgy sequence with Jesus and some white groupies at a prospective college apparently has some basis in fact, Lee’s blatant handling is offensive and borderline racist.

What He Got Game lacks, surprisingly, is a clear or compelling point of view toward the exploitation of athletes. Lee loves basketball so much he’s reluctant to condemn a process that has rewarded a handful of African Americans while turning several of the country’s finest academic institutions into pseudo minor leagues for the NBA. Lee doesn’t evaluate, either directly or by implication, the negative impact on the black community caused by years of overemphasis on athletic stardom over academic achievement. The presence of such coaching superstars as Georgetown’s John Thompson, Temple’s John Chaney, and Kansas’ Roy Williams—along with super-shill commentator Dick Vitale and not-so-subtle product placements from Nike et al.—attests to a tacit endorsement of a fundamentally flawed system.

While Lee’s past films have included prickly verbal debates on sensitive issues like color conflict among blacks or integration vs. nationalism, the discussions here of interracial sex and community conflict seem more like tacked-on asides. Indeed, the movie’s sole controversy comes from a subplot that contributes little to the film’s main theme: Jake’s fleeting affair with a white hooker (Milla Jovovich).

Actually, in this regard, Lee has shown more courage than many of his predecessors. Unlike the directors of The Pelican Brief and Virtuosity, Lee didn’t snip out love scenes between Washington and a white costar, causing some African American viewers to respond by booing loudly and cursing at the screen. Sadly, we’re still at a point in American cinematic history where there are so few African American male stars that black audiences are upset at seeing a community icon in bed with a white female, no matter the motivation or identity of the director.

Apart from Washington and Allen, He Got Game boasts many superior performances, among them Rosario Dawson as Jesus’ girlfriend, Bill Nunn as his greedy uncle, Jim Brown as a cynical parole officer, and Will Harper as Jake’s confidant, Booger. But the disappointing ending, like the movie, raises more questions than it resolves. Jesus’ decision comes out of nowhere, and the director’s personal feelings are uncharacteristically absent.

Despite flashes of Lee’s usual brilliance, He Got Game is ultimately a minor work from a director who has seldom failed to stir emotions. He Got Game won’t anger or incite audiences the way Jungle Fever or Do the Right Thing did: It lacks their fire and their urgent messages. That it’s still vastly preferable to the celluloid nonsense masquerading as African American film nowadays speaks volumes about the industry and the nation’s cultural priorities.

—Ron Wynn

Conucopia

The title The Spanish Prisoner refers to an arcane con game involving a man, his “relative,” and some overseas loot. An FBI man explains it in a breathless rush, but it’s not important that you know how it works, or even how it relates to what you’re watching. What matters is that David Mamet knows what it is and you don’t. Mamet’s best writing is a kind of insider jazz, a barrage of hostile riffing driven by the author’s conviction that he sees through everyone else’s polite façades and careful semantics. He’s obsessed with scam artists, whether they’re Hollywood hustlers or petty thieves, because they’re hip to the way the world works in secret. Life is a constant series of transactions in which somebody’s getting screwed.

The Spanish Prisoner is Mamet’s latest hand of cinematic three-card monte, a brazenly contrived and sneakily entertaining thriller that has no higher purpose than hoodwinking the audience. The mark is Joe Ross (Campbell Scott), an uptight Boy Scout of a corporate underling. Along with his loyal partner (played by Mamet regular Ricky Jay, in real life a magician and bunco historian), Joe has worked out a top-secret market-controlling formula called “The Process.”

We never find out exactly what “The Process” is or does; the generic name is Mamet’s tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of its function to the plot. (It might’ve been called “The McGuffin.”) All we need to know is that Joe’s formula can make somebody vast amounts of money—and that someone is scheming to take it away from him. As a sinister plot takes shape against Joe, the suspects include Joe’s demanding boss (Ben Gazzara), some creepy lawyers, and a shady dealmaker named Jimmy (Steve Martin). But who—and how?

The “who” is obvious early on; the “how” is the fun part, meticulously devised by Mamet in a long windup of red herrings and planted clues. The Spanish Prisoner is a variation on Mamet’s experimental “radio play” The Water Engine, in which a naive inventor is swindled and crushed by unscrupulous moneymen; the dialogue has the same retro melodramatic feel, punched up with the loungy menace of Carter Burwell’s score. Even without Mamet’s trademark profane sparring, the language is spiky and surgically precise—so much so that the merest confusion over the meaning of the words “dropped off” triggers severe repercussions. At worst, Mamet’s writing here settles into Joe Friday copspeak; at best, he fills us with dread about how much of ourselves we give away with just the simplest word choice.

The cast has a blast swatting Mamet’s curveball lines back and forth. Campbell Scott, who always seems slightly uncomfortable in his skin, is astutely cast as Joe, whose streak of resentment and distrust makes him a perfect patsy. Among a small army of expert sharpies, the surprise standout is Steve Martin, whose shivery elegance is smashingly effective. Something about the expert way Martin wears an expensive suit—as if it were peacock’s plumage, camouflage, and body armor all at once—is enough to convince us Joe’s in way over his head.

The one weak link is Rebecca Pidgeon as a ditzy receptionist, but the writer/director deserves equal blame. He gives her the movie’s worst lines—the ones that sound like Mamet parodies, with repeated, rephrased, accusing statements punctuated by somebody’s name—and then coaxes from her the sort of stilted, hypnotized line readings he demanded from Lindsay Crouse in House of Games. The gimmick doesn’t work the second time around.

As much as he may aspire to be a grifter, though, Mamet’s real gift is for the humiliation suckers feel when they’ve been fleeced. Con games are psychology, and the hurt doesn’t come so much from being easily duped as from being easily read. Who wants to feel he can be sized up at a glance—that his weaknesses are that close to the surface? Joe gets royally rooked, and we get taken right along with him because Mamet knows exactly how to misdirect our attention, even when we think our eyes are wide open—especially when we think our eyes are wide open. Even if The Spanish Prisoner isn’t quite in the same league with his previous hustles, House of Games and the criminally underrated Homicide, it’s worth a second look just to see how clearly David Mamet has us pegged.

—Jim Ridley

White line fever

Until Ben Stiller confessed to a desire to drive the big rigs in Flirting With Disaster, it had been a long time since Hollywood acknowledged the American fascination with truck drivers. That long national nightmare is officially over with the release of Black Dog, an unabashed and unironic throwback to the days of Convoy, with some Speed-style camera work tossed in by way of updating.

Patrick Swayze is all jawbone as Jack Crews, ex-con, who doesn’t let his lack of a driver’s license get in his way when his boss suggests a run from Atlanta to New Jersey carrying contraband. He’s got a wife, a daughter, and overdue bills, so he’s determined to make it up the coast despite the efforts of Red (a scripture-spouting Meat Loaf) to hijack the load. Meanwhile, an apoplectic FBI agent (Charles Dutton) tries to ease Crews’ way up the road so the buyers can be nailed when the load is delivered.

If you happen to be dateless on a Saturday night, Black Dog is for you. It’s the whole package, tractor and trailer. Hot downshifting action! The tense thrills of the interstate weigh station! The terror of the steep grade! And after seeing Black Dog, I now understand what makes a driver truly great: a Zen-like mastery of your cab, and the ability to make cars, trucks, and motorcycles alike explode into gigantic fireballs when they touch your vehicle.

Black Dog is enjoyable as the pure, undiluted essence of the Hal Needham-vintage 18-wheeler epic—which makes it hard to fathom what studio executives were thinking when they green-lighted something so utterly retro. Are they trying to rebuild the Southern drive-in network? Is there a plot to revive CBs? What is Gabriel Casseus doing in a role probably written for Ice Cube? Just be glad Black Dog slipped past the taste censors and rumbled into your town, and pony up your dough before a certain radioactive monster clears its diesel fumes out of the multiplex.

—Donna Bowman

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