D: Jake Goldenberger / 98m
Cast: Cuba Gooding Jr, Malcolm M. Mays, Kevin Hendricks, Carlton Byrd, Rachae Thomas, LisaGay Hamilton, Richard T. Jones, Dennis Haysbert, Paula Jai Parker, Jordan Calloway, Blake Cooper Griffin
A true story involving troubled teens, inner city trials and tribulations, an ex-con with family issues, and the redemptive power of chess, Life of a King has good intentions, a lot of heart, and the slow, steady pace of an illness-of-the-week TV movie. It also has a relaxed, committed performance from Gooding Jr, and enough hokey moments to choke an elephant. But what it also has is that curious approach to a true story that often leads audiences to believe that a real person’s life is stuffed full of clichés and dramatic coincidence.
The movie tells the story of Eugene Brown (Gooding Jr), who served seventeen years in prison for armed robbery, and who, once he was released, took the opportunity with a group of inner city youths to set up a community chess club. Along the way he finds it difficult to find honest work by admitting he’s an ex-con; subsequently lies on an application form for janitor at his local high school; tries to reunite with his disaffected children, Katrina (Thomas) and Marcus (Calloway); avoids being dragged back into a life of crime by his old partner Perry (Jones); faces down the school hard nut, Clifton (Byrd); sees potential in another student, Tahime (Mays); is fired once his principal (Hamilton) finds out he’s lied on his application; rents a derelict house so the chess club can carry on; stands helplessly by as one of the other students, Peanut (Hendricks), is dragged into a dangerous situation with unfortunate results; begins to connect with his children through his efforts with the chess club; overcomes a setback involving the house; and looks ahead to his chess protegés entering and triumphing in a local tournament. And then…?
If any of this sounds incredibly or entirely predictable, then by and large it is. From Brown’s surrogate father relationship with The Chessman (Haysbert) while in gaol, to Tahime’s showdown against a chess prodigy (Griffin), Life of a King ticks every possible true story box in its retelling of Brown’s story. It’s an homogenised approach to an uplifting tale that deserves better, but thanks to Goldberger’s mostly leaden direction, there are precious few moments of real power and emotion. What moments there are, are also mostly down to Gooding Jr’s earnest, well-modulated performance. He’s suitably determined as Brown, and shows the man’s resourcefulness and drive with a good sense of the difficulties he must have faced and overcome.
But again, he’s fighting against the poor performance of Goldberger in the director’s chair (making only his second feature). Goldberger – working from the script he wrote with David Scott and Dan Wetzel – seems unable to rise above the clichéd nature of his own narrative, and on several occasions seems to be embracing each cliché wholeheartedly. Some scenes feel like they’ve been constructed from the DNA of several true story TV movies, and viewers familiar with those kind of movies will notice that some of the scenes have been shot in that very style (and some individual shots as well).
This all makes the movie watchable enough thanks to the familiarity with which it’s being presented, but a bit of a chore as well thanks to the very same familiarity. Some fun can be had from anticipating each cliché before it appears, and if you felt so inclined, you could devise a predictability curve that could be drawn as the movie progresses (though it might end up being just a straight line). It’s all a shame as Brown’s story is engaging in its own right, and his efforts are well worth celebrating, but a different format is definitely needed. There’s also the problem of the script’s occasional moralising, as it uses the metaphor of chess to represent Life as often as it can, as if the audience wouldn’t get it the first time.
Aside from Gooding Jr’s portrayal of Brown, the rest of the cast do their best to make some headway against the material, with Mays’ reticent Tahime and Hendricks’ eager beaver Peanut making more of an impression than expected. Byrd’s sneering Clifton is straight out of Stock Characters 101, and he’s matched by Jones’ preening drug lord and Calloway’s petulant son. It’s the female characters that come off best (though that’s not saying much), and Hamilton is strongest as the high school principal who’s sympathetic to Brown’s cause (and even helps out with the dishes at the chess house).
As mentioned above, the movie ends with Tahime taking on a chess genius in an open tournament, and in the final naturally. But what should be a gripping sequence is let down by Goldberger’s inability to shoot it all with any sense of urgency or tension. And he’s further let down by editor Julie Garces, whose decision to represent the game through a flurry of indistinguishable moves and clock-punching makes it all impossible to follow (though that was probably the idea). It’s a clunky end to a movie that’s been the definition of clunky from the very beginning.
Rating: 4/10 – slackly and lazily constructed, Life of a King doesn’t do its subject matter justice, and lets the audience down in the process; tired and ineffective, it’s a true life tale that’s been soaked in complacency and shows off its shortcomings as if they were unavoidable.