KING RICHARD – Review
As we close in another year at the cinema, it’s time for another entry in a genre that’s usually a true “awards magnet”. Why it’s another movie biography, but it’s not in the “show biz” sub-category like JUDY or ROCKETMAN or even the upcoming BEING THE RICARDOS. This is a sports-themed “biopic” (so the upcoming Kurt Warner one will have a bit of company at the multiplex) about the tennis phenom sisters Venus and Serena. And since they’re true super-heroes on the courts, you could say it’s their “origin story”. Yet, the duo isn’t the prime focus of the flick. That’s why its title is the nickname of their “papa with a plan”, the tough taskmaster referred to as KING RICHARD.
It all begins in the early 1990s, as Richard Williams (Will Smith) piles his kids into his rickety minivan and takes them to the public park not far from the mean streets of Compton, California. He and the kids take over a tennis court, where he coaches his future stars, Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton). The younger kids fetch the tennis balls as the eldest sister tries to study while avoiding the jeers of local hoods. Daddy tries to shoo them away, with little success (and some new bruises). They’re soon back home with mama ‘Brandy’ (Aunjanue Ellis) for dinner as papa heads out to his job as a night watchman at a retail mall. The sisters hone their skills as Richard formulates a plan for success. First, they need a top coach, so they head over to an upscale club to “ambush” top trainer Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), who agrees to work with Venus for free, while a sad Serena continues her training with dad. As the awards and trophies pile up, Richard decides it’s time to “step up”, and convinces tennis coaching whiz Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) to fly in and look at the sisters in action. This prompts an offer for relocation, to Rick’s training camp tennis center in Orlando, Florida (he’ll provide them with a house against a cut of future earnings and endorsements). Over the next few months, Richard will clash with Rick along with his wife Brandy, while never losing sight of what’s best for the family and steering his daughters away from the pitfalls of superstardom.
Happily this role comes along to remind us of Smith’s superb acting skills in probably his best work since 2015’s CONCUSSION. Sometimes we forget this when the screens are filled with his big action thrillers or “star concepts” (a live-action ALADDIN was…meh), but when there are no stunts or effects to distract, Smith can truly move us. As Richard, we soon accept him as this every day “working stiff’ who is reaching for that “brass ring” while almost falling into an abyss of despair. At the story’s start he almost seems a male-version of the “stage mother’, or worse the “sidelines dad coach, though Richard will not sacrifice his angels at the altar of success. But he’s no saint, and Smith plays him as ill-tempered and stubborn, yet we know he’s just looking out for the family. Smith captures all the complexities of this very flawed, family man. Luckily he’s got some great co-stars to “butt heads with”. Ellis is the maternal “rock” that will not be budged by papa when he gets too “full of himself” (oh, when she “lays done the law” in their Orlando kitchen…whew). Then we’ve got movie and TV “tough guy” Bernthal playing against his “type’ as the often flustered Macci who tries to be the “good cop” to Richard by lulling him with humor and logic. Bernthal’s an endearing motor-mouthed cheerleader in an energetic performance. He’s nearly the opposite of Goldwyn as the no-nonsense Cohen who can’t quite shout over Richard. And kudos to both Sidney and Singleton for capturing the ups and downs of sister relations while making the big physical scenes look convincing and quite believable.
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green juggles the many dramatic and comedic sequences in the script (written by Zach Baylin) with subtlety and confidence. The exchanges between Richard and the kids are both warm and funny (watching a VHS of Disney’s “Cinderella” to gain “life lessons”) without turning him into a sitcom”doofus dad”. Green takes the story into a darker turn as the violence starts to tighten around the group. When Richard does intervene, the quick escalation is truly terrifying. The tale’s real power is in its depiction of dedication and determination along with lots of grueling hard work (my calves were aching just watching the practice montages). It’s an inspirational story (and persperational, too). Though it could use a bit of tightening (no need to be over two hours), it’s unusual for a sports film conclusion is quite refreshing. Much of the rest of it may seem familiar, but this a journey worth taking because of the exceptional cast, proving that Smith is a “movie star’ and a truly talented actor. Maybe his praise (and some possible awards) will comprise his “crown” as KING RICHARD.
3 out of 4
KING RICHARD is playing in theatres everywhere and begins a 30-day streaming run exclusively on HBO Max starting November 19.2021