(CLICK HERE for my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)
Will Smith makes his bid for an Oscar nomination in “King Richard”, a sports biopic about Richard Williams , the father and coach of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams. For some folks (including myself), the description ‘sports biopic’ comes with its own baked-in expectations. Both sports movies and big screen biographies have a history of following all too familiar formulas and relying on the tried-and-true rather than offering something new. I’m not sure “King Richard” offers anything new, but it does tell its story well. And when you have such captivating subjects, sometimes that’s all you need to do.
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green and screenwriter Zach Baylin present Richard Williams as a man driven by the scars from his own painful past. It’s what motivates him to push his daughters harder than most; to raise them in their home and off the streets; to encourage them to pursue their dreams and overcome adversity. He preaches conviction, humility, and hard work. He’s determined that his girls will succeed where he didn’t and that they’ll have the father he never had. It’s an obsession born out of love, but an obsession nonetheless.
With the girls in school, Richard hits country clubs around Los Angeles trying to convince local tennis pros to coach his daughters. After class, he practices with Venus and Serena on a rundown city court in a gang-infested part of town. He then ends his day working nights as a security guard. Lost in Richard’s aggressively up-front bravado is his wife Oracene (wonderfully played by Aunjanue Ellis), a stabilizing behind the scenes force who was crucial to the Williams sisters’ success.
Green and Baylin do a good job moving the story forward, and even at 138 minutes, the film never drags. It tracks Venus’ path to tennis stardom that takes the family out of Compton and to West Palm Beach, Florida. It covers their close relationship with renowned tennis coach Rick Macci (a terrific Jon Bernthal). It shows Venus’ decision to turn pro at only 14-years-old. And the movie doesn’t shy away from the inescapable racial component that simmers under the surface. It’s deftly handled by Green whose calculated restraint lets us sense it and feel it ourselves.
I don’t mean this as a knock, but I wasn’t prepared for how good Will Smith is in this. Grizzled and hunched, the star vanishes into the title role, delivering one of the very best performances of his career. Smith thoughtfully channels Richard’s confidence, his eccentricities, and his deeply buried bitterness in ways that never resemble mimicry. He’s helped by the warm and organic chemistry he has with Sydney and Singleton (both great). Meanwhile the film’s secret ingredient is Ellis who (much like her character) often sits in the background but speaks with strength whenever something needs to be said.
“King Richard” doesn’t quite avoid all of the sports movie trappings. Take the final 20 minutes or so which are spent on one long, overdramatized tennis match. It’s something sports movies love to end with – the big match, the big game, the big race, the big fight. Yet this film still maintains enough nuance to separate it from other feel-good crowdpleasers of its kind.
In the end, it’s hard to watch “King Richard” without being inspired, not by the money and fame, but by the fact that Richard Williams’ preposterous plan actually worked. It shows that any family, who’s full of love and deeply committed, can overcome their circumstances and do something great. Of course having two of the greatest athletes of all-time in your family probably doesn’t hurt. “King Richard” is now showing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.
Great, insightful review, Keith. You’ve convinced me to see it. With Will Smith, I tend to think he’s been pegged for a certain genre of movies and hasn’t had a quality film of another genre to show his best abilities. Glad to hear he’s been given that chance. He’s a wonderful actor.
Thanks so much. And we pretty much share the same perception of Smith. I’ve always found him to be good enough for the types of movies he usually does. This really shows a more seasoned actor who really makes the role his own. Really impressed.
You’re very welcome.
Nice work Keith, I’m looking forward to catching up with this. Very excited to hear Will Smith doesn’t disappoint. The trailers really seemed to promise something special.
It was such a nice surprise. I didn’t have the highest expectations. Smith more than delivers. And as always thanks for the kind words.
Another one that’s high up on our list of “want to see it.” 🙂 Hopefully we’ll make it next week!
It really surprised me. Not sure what I was expecting, but it was better than I anticipated.
So Willy-Will is now back. OK then, let’s hope from now on. He keeps his spoiled-ass little shits in check and not have them in movies or music ever again.
This is the Will Smith I’ve been waiting for.
Maybe he’ll learn his lesson about not turning down major roles like Django Unchained (though Jamie Foxx ended up doing a way better performance) and stay away from stupid shit such as Wild Wild West and After Earth. The last of which was so bad that it became a comedy for me at times.
I’ve never watched After Earth again after seeing it in the theater. Never again!!!
I put the blame more on Willy-Will and his no-talent douchebag of a son than M. Night Shaymalan on that film.
It was a great movie indeed an inspirational one, I too have reviewed it on my site. To see those legend in making is seriously a sight to watch and take inspiration from especially their father trust and foresight to see where his daughter will land. 🙏🙏 Amazing review
Thanks so much. I’ll admit, I was pretty surprised by it.
Yes and especially Serena was not being coached, Ohh gosh 23 times grand slam winner. ✌