Film Review: ‘Life of a King’

Variety

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Those who never learned that chess is really a grand metaphor for life itself will probably catch on at some point during “Life of a King,” a well-intentioned but thuddingly obvious addition to the “Stand and Deliver” subgenre of high-school inspirational dramas. That this sophomore feature from writer-director Jake Goldberger (“Don McKay”) is based on the true story of Eugene Brown, an ex-con who founded the famous Big Chair Chess Club for inner-city kids in Washington, D.C., doesn’t keep it from ringing mostly false from scene to scene, with each fateful twist and redemptive character arc diagrammed as neatly as any chess move. A likable ensemble led by Cuba Gooding Jr. reps the film’s best shot at connecting with urban markets.

Seeking redemption after having served 18 years in prison for armed robbery, Eugene (Gooding) does his best to readjust to normal D.C. life, reaching out to his prelaw-student daughter (Rachae Thomas) and juvie-inmate son (Jordan Calloway), both of whom spurn his overtures. Lying about his felony conviction on a job application, Eugene manages to get work as a janitor at a high school, where the kindly but clearly overwhelmed principal (Lisagay Hamilton, strong) assigns him to monitor the unruly kids in detention.

Tough enough to assert his authority over these troublemakers and burnouts, Eugene decides to use the game of chess — which he mastered over the years by playing with a fellow inmate (Dennis Haysbert) — to inspire the kids, teach them how to think and keep them off the street. With the nasty exception of thuggish Clifton (Carlton Byrd), who’s incensed that the janitor and his dumb game are disrupting his once-thriving drug sales, the kids are fairly quick to catch on. The most naturally gifted player among them turns out to be Tahime (Malcolm Mays), one of Clifton’s friends, at which point “Life of a King” inevitably becomes a battle for this troubled young man’s soul.

Before you can say “Dangerous Minds” or “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit,” Eugene is leading a club full of avid chess players who ultimately get good enough to enter a local high-school tournament. Tellingly, this development is treated not as a triumph of hard work or mental stamina, but as a narrative given; the screenplay (by Goldberger, Dan Wetzel and David Scott) evinces precious little interest in the mechanics of the game itself, or the strategies and techniques required to master it. Really, chess — a game with strict rules and infinite possibilities (just like life!) — seems to exist mainly to inspire Eugene’s tidy little aphorisms, such as “Think before you move” and “Protect your king.” As if to reinforce this last bit of advice, Eugene carries around a large king piece that will become needlessly freighted with symbolic irony before the story is over.

Aiming to be a tale of fatherly redemption, a cautionary tale about the lure of the streets, an uplifting underdog saga and an affirmation of today’s black youth, “Life of a King” feels overambitious at best, didactic and button-pushing at worst. The performances compensate to some degree. Looking unusually rugged and careworn, befitting a guy who’s spent nearly two decades behind bars, Gooding gives a fine, stolid, unsurprising turn that emphasizes Eugene’s tough-love approach and his willingness to lay everything on the line for his young charges. As the two most problematic kids in detention, Byrd and especially Mays are both naturals, while Kevin Hendricks registers memorably in a role best described as the tragicomic relief.

The other young thesps are fine but leave mostly shallow impressions; overall tech package is competent but undistinguished.


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