Spike Lee couldn't make a dull movie if he were ordered to with a gun pressed to his head. Here, he weaves his familiar mix of textured technical wizardry and poetic resonance into a subject he was born to film. From the dazzling slo-mo opening montage of black, white, rich and poor kids each spinning their solo hoop-and-ball artistry, it's clear that Lee is not only in love with the purity of the sport itself but also with the idea of basketball as a social leveller.
Thankfully, He Got Game is much more than a cloying, self-indulgent love-poem to a certain obsession. Lee uses the sport as leverage to present a blissfully unsentimental approach to themes and issues which have already been hackneyed to pieces by the ersatz emoting of mainstream Hollywood (morality, temptation, forgiveness, redemption, the father-son relationship).
We're treated to some sparky acting, rich and believable dialogue-driven characters, great music (Public Enemy are, naturally, in full effect) and no sign of any fluffed-up drama-go-round in line with the standard sports- movie paradigm (big game ending... crucial winner jostled through in the dying seconds...).
Washington, flitting seamlessly from paternal resolve to quiet desperation, is excellent, but Ray Allen - - guard for the Milwaukee Bucks back in the real world - - is fantastic. For authenticity's sake, Lee opted to cast a genuine basketball player and coach him in acting (rather than the other way around) and he manages to draw the desired effect in abundance. It's a flowing, naturalistic performance underscored with phenomenal ball skills.
John Turturro continues his reign as the cameo king, this time as a satanic college coach who tempts Jesus with an absurd, mocked-up mini-documentary of the sports prodigy's projected notable career, complete with walking-on-water sequence and Sports Illustrated `crucifixion' cover.
There's minor interference from a pointless sub-plot featuring Jovovich's hooker-with-a-heart, inspired to escape from her abusive pimp by Jake's tender tenacity. But, for Lee, this is a triumphant return to clipped, iconoclastic form which, despite the apparent sporty specifics, deserves to be seen by all.
An accomplished and accessible tale of loyalty, identity and dedication set within the closing jaws of big, bad business. If you have no interest in basketball (or sport in general), it might even woo you a little. If you love basketball, you'll wet yourself.