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H E...G O T...G A M E

Spike Lee's new film, He Got Game, is a lot like the Public Enemy single that accompanies it: just a little friendlier than you expected. The movie follows Jesus Shuttlesworth, a superstar high school basketball player with a lot of heart, through the final days before he has to announce to the world where he will attend college. The stakes are high: for the college basketball programs, his skills are an invaluable commodity; for Jesus, the scholarship is a ticket out of Coney Island and the projects.
It's a familiar story with a different frame since we're not particularly concerned with Jesus' future as a basketball star -- that future is assured -- or which college team, with what kind of history, will be blessed by his contributions. This isn't Hoop Dreams or Hoosiers. Instead, the movie plays like a short story, focusing on the inner transformations within Jesus as he evaluates his Coney Island life, and more importantly, rethinks his relationship with his estranged and murderous father. That is, it's a short story that ultimately leaves it's characters behind, for as much as Lee wants this film to be about c.plex relationships, it's really a hybrid of a moral fable and a commentary on commercialism.

Like many of Lee's films, He Got Game pays amazing attention to visual detail. Scenes were shot as compositions of color and speed, with particular sequences -- of a ball spinning, a player rising to a hoop -- slowed down to the point of detachment from the movie itself, left to be perhaps no more than a meditation on the beauty of moving bodies. In fact, basketball was rarely treated as a sport in this movie, but more like a choreographed dance, and Lee's choice of music -- Aaron Copeland -- was a perfect accompaniment for that vision. Unfortunately, the pure intensity of the music overwhelmed many of the scenes with dialogue, especially the weakly acted ones, and it sometimes seemed like Lee was using Copeland as a crutch to produce continuity.

As for acting, it was nice to be impressed by Denzel Washington again -- he played Jake Shuttlesworth, Jesus' father -- though it's unfortunate that he was the only one in the cast with any acting skills. For ex.ple, Milla Jovovich's performance as an abused and sequined Coney Island hooker was, believe it or not, the same show she gave as an abused and Gaultier-wearing alien in The Fifth Element. On the other hand, Ray Allen's work was a more c.plicated story. Taking a break from his real-life basketball career with the Milwaukee Bucks, Allen was c.pletely engaging as Jesus, despite the fact that in some scenes his acting was really terrible. In those awkward moments, his hesitation translated as energy and gave his character some much needed humility, while in scenes with Washington, he seemed to absorb the talent as if responding to a challenge, radically stepping up his performance the way Jesus (or Allen) plays on the court.

Not surprisingly, Jesus and Jake are the thickest characters in the film, but they're also the only ones who have any substance at all, and even they get undercut as the movie progresses. Most of the characters are just loose sketches of c.plicated people Lee conceived on the drawing board, and almost all the female characters are thumbnail works at best. But, like I said before, He Got Game has another agenda besides character development, and the movie does a good job portraying a Coney Island community struggling with the sudden fame and wealth of one of its members.

The movie is most successful in its critique of commercialism, to the point of creating commercial paranoia in both its characters and its audience. Just as Jesus begins to suspect that everyone is plotting to exploit his future wealth, so too do you begin to distrust the movie itself. After all, what is the point of mentioning the new Air Jordans twice, or the sequence of NBA cameos, or the fact that the film was released during the NBA Play-offs? Throw in the supermodel and the sex scene with two Hustler pin-ups, and you start to feel like Spike and his social commentary are just 40 Lakers and a Tool to get your money.

But the paranoia doesn't stick, and that's where He Got Game makes its move as a moral lesson. Despite the full-court plugs, He Got Game inspires empathy for its most sinful character, Jake, who -- if I'm to trust the cues here -- might as well represent sinful, greedy humanity itself. This isn't heartstrings empathy though, this is a straight-out call to action; we aren't asked to boo hoo Jake's fate, or even to reflect on our own sins. Rather, Lee asks us -- and Jesus -- to make a move of the will: to transform anger into forgiveness. It's an unusual order and a difficult one, mostly because it's unclear how many cheeks we're supposed to turn and when. But the basic point is pretty inspirational, even when you consider the movie's many flaws.

Ultimately, Lee sacrifices c.plex characters for a s.ple lesson, which is frustrating for intellectual fans who are still waiting for any movie to match the sophisticated paradoxes of Do the Right Thing. Perhaps, however, those are not the fans Lee is looking out for here. He Got Game, when all is gone to video, may be the most beautiful and effective after-school special ever done.

He Got Game, rated R, 131 minutes
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