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Review: He Got Game (1998)

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Wallace Baine

May 7, 1998, 3:00:00 AM5/7/98

by Wallace Baine
film writer
Santa Cruz Sentinel

"He Got Game"
Verdict: A-

The main character’s name is Jesus. The movie’s tag line is “The father,
the son and the holy game.”

Allegories don’t get more obvious than that, but despite the explicitness
-- or maybe even because of it -- Spike Lee’s heartfelt “He Got Game”
transcends its sports-movie orientation to become a convincingly
unsentimental examination of a father’s tough love of his gifted son. And
we’re not talking about that Father or that son.

Lee’s enthusiasm for basketball, specifically the New York Knicks, is in
fact more famous than any of his movies. “He Got Game” is easily one of the
most eloquent odes to hoops committed to film and if you figured Spike Lee
would be the last director on earth to fall for mytho-poetics, you
underestimate the depth of his love for this game. A picturesque opening
montage shuttles from farm boy to ghetto kid and several demographic shades
in between, all engaging in the primal slo-mo of the well-executed jump
shot. Lee’s lovingly rendered shots of the ball’s arc through the air
recalls the famous bone toss in “2001: A Space Odysessy.” Even the
bombastic opening score by John Williams is jarringly unlike Spike.

From that aching beginning comes a penetrating story of dubious redemption
involving one Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington), an aging ex-hoopster
serving hard time in Attica for accidentally killing his wife in a domestic
dispute. On the outside, Jake’s son Jesus (pronounced just like a certain
King of the Jews) has blossomed into the nation’s most highly touted
high-school basketball player. A lanky forward with Jordan-like moves and a
killer instinct on the court, Jesus is struggling to stay real amidst the
swirl of attention from colleges, sports agents, the media and friends and
family of less-than-pure motives.

The warden of Attica offers Jake a deal. If he can convince his son to sign
with the governor’s alma mater, a school called Big State, then Jake’s
sentence will be shortened considerably. Problem is, Jesus has nursed a
murderous resentment against his father for the murder of his mother. With
one week left before the deadline to state his intentions for his future,
the last thing Jesus needs is to deal with a father he hasn’t seen in six

“He Got Game” is gimmicky. Spike Lee’s celebrity in the world of big-time
basketball allows him to line up a number of heavyweights -- from college
coaches like Dean Smith and John Thompson to pro players like Reggie
Miller, Shaquille O’Neal and His Airness -- to sing the praises of Jesus in
a faux SportsCenter report. The young man’s first name is exploited in any
number of hokey media puns (“Jesus Saves” trumpets Sports Illustrated).
Underneath the hokum, however, is a movie worth savoring. Holed up in a
foul, dingy hotel, Jake attempts to get the ear of his son while making
time with a battered white prostitute (Milla Jovovich) and keeping at bay
the two cantakerous parole officers assign to birddog him (one of whom is
the wonderfully gruff Jim Brown).

At some point, however, the story finds it teeth in the travails of Jesus,
played with understatement by real-life NBA star Ray Allen. Like his
namesake seeking righteousness in a cesspool of licentiousness, Jesus is
intent on playing by the rules even when he is surrounded by corrupted
people with their own agendas who see Jesus as a potential cash cow
including his coach, his girlfriend and even his uncle and legal guardian.
With only his kid sister and his loyal cousin Booger (wasn’t that the
Apostle Paul’s nickname?) to trust, Jesus navigates the money-changers,
keeping his intentions to himself. Jake’s job is to convince his son that
he’s not just trailing the golden goose like everyone else, which is going
to be tough since he’s got his own agenda.

The difficult relationship between Jake and Jesus is revealed in fitful
flashback as we observe an unforgiving Jake pushing his son to exploit his
talents to the fullest. When the eventful showdown comes between father and
son, it comes on a basketball court.

“He Got Game” certainly has it excesses and missteps, the chief among them
Jake’s tryst with the hooker, a subplot that only adds length to the movie.
But Spike Lee’s respect -- nay, worship -- of basketball is contagious and
his audacious metaphors give shape to a powerful story of a father’s
efforts to save his son. And we all know a thing or two about that story.

David Sunga

May 7, 1998, 3:00:00 AM5/7/98

HE GOT GAME (1998)

Rating: 3.0 stars (out of 4.0)
Key to rating system:
2.0 stars - Debatable
2.5 stars - Some people may like it
3.0 stars - I liked it
3.5 stars - I am biased in favor of the movie
4.0 stars - I felt the movie's impact personally or it stood out
A Movie Review by David Sunga

Directed by: Spike Lee

Written by: Spike Lee

Starring: Denzel Washington, Ray Allen, Rosario Dawson, Milla Jovovich,
Hill Harper

High school basketball player, father out of prison, temptation, trying
to reconnect with children. father/son relationship

Jesus Shuttlesworth (NBA Milwaukee Bucks star Ray Allen) is a lonely
high school basketball star who has never forgiven his father for the
accidental killing of his mother during an argument long ago. His
well-meaning father Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington) pressured
Jesus from birth to become a great ball player, alienating the child
through incessant, demanding training, before being jailed for the
murder and carted away.

Years later the talented Jesus is about to graduate from high school,
and everyone in the world is out to exploit the kid's talent, from
college recruiters offering unofficial hookers, to agents offering
sports cars, fame, and the fast life. Even his girlfriend, uncle, and
coach cannot be trusted. Everyone wants to use Jesus as a vehicle for
self-enrichment. Jesus faces temptation and the risk of exploitation at
every turn.

One day the governor offers Jake the chance to get out of prison early
if he convinces Jesus to enroll at the governor's alma mater. He gives
Jake one week of supervised freedom to make it happen or go back to
jail. Jake knows it's exploitation, but this is the only opportunity for
him to try to reconnect with his alienated son. He takes the deal.

A subplot involves Milla Jovovich as a jaded prostitute whom Jake
discovers in a seedy motel, and tries to aid.

Can love break down animosity?

HE GOT GAME is not a sports action vehicle; it's a father/son film, a
good solid project by director Spike Lee. It's not often that we
moviegoers get to see a film about love (other than the lusty romantic
sort), but HE GOT GAME is about a father and son trying to reconnect,
and their love must break tough barriers.

At the same time, another major theme of HE GOT GAME is exploitation. In
our society it is sometimes assumed that Hollywood and sports
celebrities who accumulate material wealth and fame have "got it made"
and are happy. But in HE GOT GAME the only love that counts is the one
that's real. To other people Jesus seems on the brink of stardom and
happiness, but Jesus may actually be on the brink of unhappiness - - of
discovering how much trusted people are using him for their own greedy

HE GOT GAME is part of an overall trend in 1990s film - - of the
emerging theme of the awareness of mass manipulation. In SCREAM the
movie characters know they are part of a film. In THE GAME and in DARK
CITY we see an overall theme of manipulation by unseen hands. Next
month in Jim Carrey's THE TRUMAN SHOW (which is similar to DARK CITY
only it should be called BRIGHT CITY) we will again get to ponder the
theme of Hollywood manipulators manipulating characters and situations
like puppets for commercial gain. It's almost as if these days film is
looking inwards on its exploitive, voyeuristic, and commercialist
aspect. In HE GOT GAME, the glitz and glamour of stardom is shown to be
an empty, friendless "tears-of-a-clown" world - - a mind game where
greedy people manipulate each other for money. I predict this
interpretation will sharpen and continue in other films this year.

There are a few minor things that could have been done a little stronger
in HE GOT GAME: The music used Americana and fiddle in some parts of the
film but rap in other parts, whereas it might have been stronger if the
music was a consistent style. There also seem to be two distinct endings
to the film (a real ending followed by another, symbolic, ending) rather
than one. Finally, when Big Time Willie (a small time crook) rides Jesus
around in his convertible and gives him a long-winded rundown on the
various temptations of the inner city, Willie's speech seems contrived
for the audience rather than for Jesus. These three things could have
been sharper, but are still done sufficiently well.

For you basketball fans out there, there are also some interesting
cameos by familiar NBA faces: Shaq, Jordan, Pippen, Reggie Miller, and
coaches Rick Pitino (Celtics) and George Karl (Sonics).

There is solid acting and cinematography in HE GOT GAME, and it delivers
an articulate viewpoint on our family values and on our society's
values. As Malone of the NBA's Utah Jazz would say, HE GOT GAME

Reviewed by David Sunga
April 24, 1998

Copyright © 1998
This review and others like it can be found at

Yen, Homer

May 7, 1998, 3:00:00 AM5/7/98

Spike Lee Got Terrific "Game"

"He Got Game" is the kind of unique movie that gives you a peek into a
world that few of us can ever be a part of. It's real focus is on the
temptations that bombard Jesus Shuttlesworth (NBA star Ray Allen), who
has long endured a life of hardship but is on the verge of entering the
promised land. Now, as the country's #1 high school player, he is
constantly being hounded by sports agents and college recruiters. Jesus
is no longer just another person. He has become a commodity, and the
trading environment is fierce and unscrupulous.

The Governor, who is a huge college basketball fan, hopes that Jesus
will attend his alma mater, the fictional Big State. The governor
offers a deal to Jake (Denzel Washington), Jesus' father, who is serving
time in jail. Get him to go to his alma mater and Jake's sentence will
be reduced. Jake is released for a week in order to persuade him. But
Jesus hates his father, blaming him for the destruction of their family.
Jake is not only trying to convince Jesus to go to Big State, but also
wants to use his precious time to ask for his son's forgiveness and
impart a little advice as only a father can. Much of this movie focuses
on Jake's poignant attempt to reconnect with his son and society. He is
a simple man and looks for any glimmer of hope. Jake also befriends an
abused prostitute (Milla Jovovich). While this chance relationship may
clash with the rest of the film, it does allude to the tough choices
that we face in light of extraordinary circumstances. He desperately
tries to reacquaint himself with his son, but Jesus is immersed in a
multitude of distractions.

Yet it's the other distractions that I found to be the most enjoyable
part of the film. His high school coach bribes him. The uncle who has
raised him buys a brand new Lexus leveraging Jesus' name. The
girlfriend admits that high school relationships in general fail, and
pointedly asks why she shouldn't get anything for their time together.
A local Benz-driving, street hustler tells of the traps and pitfalls
that await those who approach fame and fortune too quickly. There is a
terrific five-minute scene involving a fast-talking sports agent that
wants Jesus to turn professional under his tutelage. The agent shows
off his collection of exotic cars and offers to give him a platinum and
diamond watch that costs more than a Corvette. And there is also an
interesting sequence where Jesus is given a tour of a college complete
with parties, a glitzy presentation, and busty students who recruit
using their own unique methods.

He Got Game is partly a drama about a father that wants to reunite with
his son, but it's also a fascinating look into the competitive
recruitment process and about the transformation process that inevitably
accompanies impending fame and fortune. The storytelling is insightful
and invigorating. In the end, we learn that while we may become a
commodity to everyone else, we'll always remain a real person to our
parents, and this link to our humanity may be the most important thing
to have.

Grade: B+

Nathaniel R. Atcheson

May 8, 1998, 3:00:00 AM5/8/98

He Got Game (1998)

Director:  Spike Lee
Cast:  Denzel Washington, Ray Allen, Rosario Dawson, Milla Jovovich,
Hill Harper, Zelda Harris, Jennifer Esposito, Bill Nunn, Ned Beatty
Screenplay:  Spike Lee
Producers:  Jon Kilik, Spike Lee
Runtime:  131 min.
US Distribution:  Buena Vista/Hollywood
Rated R:  violence, sex, drugs, language

By Nathaniel R. Atcheson (

I think I've said this before (well, I know I've said this before)--I'm
not a sports person. Sports talk doesn't interest me. Professional
sports don't interest me. Football, basketball, baseball -- these
things don't interest me. I don't hate them, but sports alone can not
hold my attention. I have the utmost respect for Spike Lee for creating
a film that has a lot to do with basketball and keeping me compelled and
interested through its entire length.

What one must realize when approaching He Got Game is that it's not
really about basketball: it's about the complicated relationship
between a father and his son. That's not, by a longshot, all there is
to this film -- Lee takes on a lot of subplots and themes, and the
result is a far-reaching and ambitious picture. Though it is a
fascinating character study and often very powerful, the film seems to
overflow with messages at times, and Lee never quite finds the right
note for tone and atmosphere.

The father mentioned above is Jake Shuttleworth (Denzel Washington).
He's a convicted felon (finding out why is part of the film, so I can't
tell you) serving his sentence in prison; early in the film, he's
approached by the warden (Ned Beatty) with an offer -- he has one week
to convince his own son, Jesus (Ray Allen) to attend Big State
University. Jesus is the nation's number one high school basketball
player, and he's expected to easily make it into the NBA, and perhaps
end up the greatest player of all time.

It's a difficult time in Jesus' life, for he has many universities
pressuring him to sign into their program, and he's waiting until the
last possible second to make his decision. He's also suddenly saddled
with a life of fame, though he still lives in the projects with his
sister, Mary (Zelda Harris). Jake agrees to the job, and immediately
goes to see his children. Mary is happy to see him, but Jesus won't
even acknowledge him as his father. This is where the conflict arises.

The father/son relationship of He Got Game is the central theme, and
Lee handles this aspect of the film with detailed care and respect.
Washington is superb here (as he always is), and manages to convey the
desperation of a man trapped in an impossible situation. Midway through
the film, he meets a prostitute named Dakota (Milla Jovovich), whom he
seems to really care for, and this subplot helps to characterize him
further. Lee and Washington both do a fantastic job creating this
fascinating man.

The other half of the relationship is portrayed effectively by Ray
Allen. Allen does an excellent job playing a naive high school student
who is suddenly and inexplicably confronted with a chance at greatness.
His reaction to his father is also very well done, and the scenes
between the two men are engaging -- they dynamics between the characters
work so well that it's impossible not to admire this film for these
scenes. There are a lot of supporting characters (and a few cameos),
and all of them are colorful and interesting; Jovovich (last seen in The
Fifth Element) really stands out, as does young Zelda Harris.

As well as the central themes in He Got Game work, there just seems to
be a little too much padding, both in story and in execution. The
cinematography Malik Hassen Sayeed is interesting, but he employs a lot
of strange tricks (fade-to-white is a common one) that are intended to
draw the viewer in, but instead they just distance us from what's
happening on screen. Aaron Copland's musical score is fantastic, but it
doesn't always fit the mood of the film: when Jake and Jesus have a
climactic one-on-one game, Copland's heavy strings and
classical-sounding themes made me too aware of the music, and the best
scores blend in and add to the overall image without being distracting.

There's also a lot of sex, and these scenes border on soft-porn
(example -- two college girls are waiting for Jesus when he goes to
visit a university, and . . . you know the rest). And there's a long,
violent interlude during which a strange individual briefs Jesus on all
of the drugs and sex he'll be missing if he goes away to school. I'm
not too certain why Lee wanted to be so explicit with the sex and
violence (there are several scenes like the ones described above), but
it seems to detract from what this film is really about.

And what this film really is about is the relationship between Jake and
Jesus. Jesus' hatred for his father is deep and potent, and, inversely,
Jake's love for his son is equally powerful -- every scene between the
two is electric and intense. Spike Lee and his actors pull off this
central relationship so perfectly that the extras on the outside are
only minor detractors. He Got Game, even in its strangest moments, is a
compelling and engrossing experience.

*** out of ****
(7/10, B)


Nathaniel R. Atcheson

David N. Butterworth

May 9, 1998, 3:00:00 AM5/9/98

A film review by David N. Butterworth
Copyright 1998 David N. Butterworth

**** (out of ****)

Spike Lee got game. Ain't no two ways about it. Should anyone
tell you otherwise, consider this for starters:

The music for Lee's latest film, "He Got Game," is by the late 20th
Century composer Aaron Copland, he of the sublimely obnoxious opus
"Appalachian Spring." Now I've never liked Copland, especially
"Appalachian Spring." But in "He Got Game," Copland works. Majestically.
Even the snatches of "Appalachian Spring" on the soundtrack didn't cause me
any discomfort. Not at all. In fact, I loved it. The brass; the
cacophony of sound--it just worked. Coupled with prominent rap songs by
Public Enemy and "He Got Game" exhibits one of the most esoteric song
scores in recent memory. Credit that to filmmaker Lee, the man with--among
other talents--game.

Game with a capital g, that is.

Lee's latest film takes two complex themes and expertly blends them
into what appears, on the surface, to be a relatively straightforward
story: if incarcerated felon Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington) can
convince his basketball-playing, high school hot-shot son to opt for the
Governor's alma mater, his stay in the state penitentiary will be
curtailed. The themes, as presented, seem simple enough too: the high cost
of fame, and the even higher price of having accidentally destroyed
something you loved.

"He Got Game" reveals the surprising sadness of being wooed by both
slick professional agents and countless universities promising assurances
of the good life, and how that pressure can sometimes be too enormous a
burden to bear. And with startling honesty, this profound difficulty is
contrasted with Shuttlesworth's own personal tragedy.

At the beginning of "He Got Game" it's not clear why convicted
Attica inmate Shuttlesworth is doing time, And that's another strength of
Lee's film; the story details unfold with precise, revelatory specificity,
like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle snapping into place.

Washington, if not already, should be deigned a national treasure.
His work here is superlative, surpassing almost anything he's done before.
His portrayal of Jake, a loving, supportive family man at odds with his
son, is by turns sensitive, tough, and ultimately human.

The supporting performances in "He Got Game" are worthy of mention
too: Milla Jovovich ("The Fifth Element") as a strung-out Coney Island
hooker; Lonette McKee as Jake's wife, Martha; Zelda Harris as their
resilient daughter, Mary. All are commendable. And last but by no means
least, NBA star Ray Allen, a brilliant acting debut as Jesus Shuttlesworth,
the son torn by promise, prestige, and conflicting family loyalties.

Stylistically, Lee's film is a marvel, covering the court with a
variety of cinematic techniques: documentary-style commentary from famous
college hoop coaches (such as Temple's John Chaney); kinetic, solarized
jump-cut sequences that play like a Nike commercial; slow-motion basketball
montages that will make even a non-believer sit up and take notice--all
backed by Copland's blaring horns and harmonics.

I don't doubt for a minute that this accomplished director could
make even a game of cricket appear exciting.

"He Got Game" is, pure and simple, one slam dunk of a motion picture.

David N. Butterworth

Chris Loar

May 11, 1998, 3:00:00 AM5/11/98

He Got Game
Directed by Spike Lee

A film review by Chris Loar

Call it "Spike Lee's LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST." Or, rather, of Jesus --
Jesus Shuttlesworth, Jesus of Coney Island, Brooklyn's hottest hoopster,
1998's top NCAA prospect. This Jesus, as the film opens, is experiencing
the greatest temptations of his life -- making choices about where to go
to college, whether to move directly to the pros, and how to balance what
he needs to do for his family's sake versus what he'd like to get for

Into this complex mixture of good and evil walks a complex man -- whether
Jesus' savior or his Antichrist isn't immediately obvious. This man is
Jesus' father, Jake Shuttlesworth, played with perfect pitch by Denzel
Washington. Jake's out of prison, temporarily; he's been serving a
fifteen year prison sentence, and he's just been offered a chance at a
sort of redemption. The governor of New York is a huge hoops fan
himself, and he's offering Jake a very special deal: if he can get Jesus
to attend the governor's alma matter, he'll see if he can't reduce Jake's
sentence a little. Jake accepts the offer, naturally enough, but he
doesn't seem very optimistic, and we soon see why -- he is, to say the
least, estranged from his son. We quickly learn that while Jesus wants
to do the right thing, he's not at all sure that that includes getting
his pop out of jail early.

This, in a nutshell, is the setup for Spike Lee's HE GOT GAME --
basketball movie, father-son story, religious allegory, all in one. It's
a little contrived, yes, and a little predictable, certainly; but it is,
nonetheless, a real pleasure to watch -- energetic, heartfelt, and
engrossing. We're immediately sucked in by Lee's obvious love for the
visual energy of a basketball game; he holds our attention with his
overall brisk pace and with Denzel Washington, who's never turned in a
better performance. He shows us Jake's contradictions and his
complications; he's a man who wants the best for his son, but also
desperately wants what's best for himself, and that inner struggle is
what gives the film most of its emotional resonance. (Washington's
strong performance is more than enough to carry his costar, Ray Allen,
who's strong on the court but could really use an acting coach.) Lee
also tosses in a couple of fine bit parts for Ned Beatty and John

The film's plot isn't as easy to admire, and it has been criticized for
being a bit rambling. I'm not sure that's entirely fair; the criticism
is, I think, due to the mistaken assumption that the film is, first and
foremost, about a father-son relationship, or about basketball. It
isn't. The game referred to in the title isn't just basketball -- it's
also about the game of life, where all relationships can be tainted by
the drive for power, or the love of money. The film raises the question
of whether any relationship -- even between a loving father and a loving
son -- can ever be free from taint, and the answer seems to be no. But
Lee's script is nonetheless optimistic, suggesting that a contaminated,
complicated relationship doesn't preclude real intimacy and caring. He
drives this point home with a seemingly disconnected subplot featuring
Jake's relationship with a neighborhood prostitute, Dakota Burns. Jake
buys Dakota's time and favors, but the taint that implies isn't absolute
-- the somewhat unlikely couple manage to cultivate a genuinely caring
relationship in spite of it.

There are, on the other hand, any number of very fair criticisms to be
made of HE GOT GAME. Washington's performance is so powerful, and the
script so slanted in his direction, that the role of Jesus is
overshadowed -- the script doesn't create a very convincing character,
and Allen doesn't have the experience or skill to create one for us. And
Lee does make some unfortunate choices -- the film's epilogue has a
syrupy tone that's reminiscent in an unpleasant way of the tacked-on
conclusion of 1990's MO' BETTER BLUES, and his experiments with film
stock and lighting might better have been left to Oliver Stone.

But the most serious criticism of the film has nothing to do with Lee's
technique. The unfortunate fact is that, while engrossing and enjoyable,
the film isn't especially challenging or thought-provoking. HE GOT GAME
is a world apart from SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT; Lee's early work, free from
the demands of the mass market, was consistently challenging and
stimulating. GAME has a much more pre-digested feel. It dissolves on
the palate, light as a communion wafer; yet someone, it seems, has their
eye on the collection plate. No relationship is untainted, certainly,
least of all a filmmaker's relationship to his audience; but it's still a
small sin against cinema that the film isn't more challenging than it is.

(c) 1998 by Chris Loar

Matt Williams

May 13, 1998, 3:00:00 AM5/13/98

A film review by Matt Williams

RATING: * * 1/2* out of * * * *

Spike Lee tackles the subject of basketball in his new movie, He Got
Game. However, this isn't your traditional basketball movie (in fact,
aside from short clips, the game is only played once during the movie).
Instead, the film works best as a relationship drama...detailing the
estrangement between father and son.

Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington) has been imprisoned for the last
six years, when the warden (Ned Beatty) offers him a deal which could
grant him a pardon. It seems that Jake's son, appropriately named Jesus
(Ray Allen), has become the country's top basketball prospect. If Jake
can convince Jesus to enroll in the governor's alma mater, Big State,
the governor might find it in his heart to cut Jake's time in prison

The problem is Jake and Jesus haven't been on talking terms since Jake
killed Jesus' mother. Jesus has raised himself and his sister Mary
(Zelda Harris), and wants nothing further to do with his father. Jake
has one week to reconcile with his son before the NCAA deadline...and it
won't be an easy task.

With the deadline looming, everyone wants a piece of Jesus. His family,
his coach, his schoolmates, and even his girlfriend all have angles, and
there's seemingly no one that Jesus can trust. It's not a good time for
a reconciliation.

The pressures of basketball have been explored several times before, but
He Got Game does an adequate job at showing the temptations and dangers
involved. However the more interesting story here is the family
relationship between father and son.

But the film is easily sidetracked, offering up plenty of boring
subplots that add little to the story. As a prime example, take Jake's
romantic involvement with Dakota (Milla Jovovich), a hooker with a heart
of gold. What does this add to the movie? Another stereotypical
character and an unexploited chance for Denzel's acting skills (which
could have been put to better use by furthering the story).

Denzel Washington delivers the strong performance he is known for, but
the wildcard in the movie is Ray Allen. He performs better than your
typical athlete-turned-actor, but (a fact which is particularly obvious
when he's paired up with someone of Denzel's caliber) his talents truly
reside on the court rather than the set. Spike Lee would have done his
movie a favor if he hired an actor rather than an athlete.

The central plot of He Got Game, however, is still compelling enough to
recommend the movie purely on its own merits. As a Spike Lee movie it
is a little disappointing. It's not among his best work, but neither is
it down among his worst.

Copyright 1998 Matt Williams

- Matt Williams (
Reviewer for Cinematter:
Home of over 500 reviews, and information on over 600 upcoming releases

Steve Kong

May 13, 1998, 3:00:00 AM5/13/98

HE GOT GAME (1998)

A film review by Steve Kong
Edited by Cher Johnson
Copyright 1998 Steve Kong

Sports movies are a hard genre to work with, especially if you don't want
to make a comedy or a family film - categories which most sports movies
fall into. But, every once in a long while there comes a sports film that
is neither, and that really hits home. The one that I remember most is
Field of Dreams. I haven't seen a good sports film in a long time.

I'm certain that had He Got Game been done by any other writer/director it
would have failed, but in the hands of Spike Lee, He Got Game is one of the
best films of 1998 and will probably make my top 10 list.

Who's got game? A kid named Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen), who's a
graduating senior at the real-life Lincoln high school on Coney Island.
Jesus is so good at basketball that every college wants him and every NBA
team wants him. What is Jesus going to do?

Someone else has game also, though. Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington)
is the father of Jesus. He's currently serving time in a prison with 15
years to go. What landed Jake in prison? He killed his wife. With this
act, he split his whole family apart - turning Jesus into an embittered
young man who has taught himself to believe that he has no father. With a
week to go before Jesus needs to decide about going to college or going
pro, the governor has a proposal for Jake. He will try to reduce Jake's
sentence and help him get early parole if Jake will convince Jesus to go to
the governor's alma mater, Big State.

What Spike Lee does with He Got Game is amazing. He slowly unravels a
story which on the surface looks and feels like a run-of-the-mill sports
film. But underneath, he starts to reveal the pressure and events that
happen around a star basketball player ready to make "the most important
decision of his life." Lee starts showing us that from sex, to money, to
new cars, the people around Jesus will try anything to convince him to do
what they want. And with this, they also want a piece of what Jesus will
be making.

He Got Game relies directly on the relationship between the father and son.
Onscreen this relationship lives, and lives only because of a brilliant
performance by Denzel Washington. Washington puts his all onscreen and it
shows. This time around, Washington is not playing an egghead - as in
Crimson Tide - or an everyday man - like in the forgettable but enjoyable
Fallen. No, this time he plays a poor man with a lot of failings,
including the killing of his wife. I walked in thinking that Washington
would play Jake as a hard-nosed embittered man, but my hunch turned out all
wrong. The only embittered one was Jesus. Washington plays Jake as a guy
who regrets most of the things that he has done in his life.

The weak link in all of this is the stiff performance by Ray Allen.
Although Lee coerces Allen into a decent performance, it's not enough to
take He Got Game from a great film to an all-time great film. It is a good
start for Allen, though, and I wish him well in his further acting jobs.

Spike Lee has always been a favourite writer and director of mine. His Do
The Right Thing is one of my favourite films (and for those of you who
don't know me personally, my nickname is Mookie, which is the name of Lee's
character in Do The Right Thing.) With He Got Game, Lee has one-upped
himself and this is now my favourite Spike Lee film. Lee has a particular
style in the way that he shoots his films and this all shows in a wonderful
opening montage of people playing basketball across America. This is one
of the best openings I've ever experienced and shows the love of basketball
that Lee has.

What's interesting to note is that although He Got Game is about
basketball, there are no extended sequences of basketball in the movie. We
only see a one-on-one game between Jake and Jesus. We get some flashes of
basketball games, but the focus is never on the sport - Spike Lee uses it
to explore the things that go around the game.

Worth mentioning is the music by Aaron Copland, which is downright
American. Copland's music along with Lee's imagery is wonderous.

Next to Ray Allen, there are two smaller weak links in He Got Game. One is
a sub-plot about a prostitute (Milla Jovovich) and Jake. And the other is
the awkward symbolic ending, which irked me the most.

He Got Game is a Don't Miss movie that never fails to entertain. This film
is powerful, moving, and all the while it holds our attention with a
well-written relationship between a father and a son.

Steve Kong
reviews from a guy who loves the cinema

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