The hardest part of winning is choosing sides
Kyle is the star prospect on his inner city high school basketball team. Hoping to impress potential college recruiters, he hogs the ball and constantly draws attention to himself. When an old friend, fresh out of jail, named Bug takes him to meet the local gang leader Birdie, Kyle discovers an ulterior motive for the introduction. Birdie wants Kyle as a ringer on his street hoops Shoot Out team. If he agrees, Kyle will be set up with money, clothes, and women. Overwhelmed, Kyle agrees. At school, Kyle runs into the new security guard, Shep, and takes an instant dislike to him. Shep has a past connected with the basketball team (he was once a star player) and the current coach wants him to take over the program. But Shep is still haunted by a tragic accident fifteen years before that changed his life and fortunes forever. He has just recently returned to his hometown. While he tries to start over (even dating Kyle's mother), old wounds are hard to heal, especially between Shep and his brother…Birdie. As the big Shoot Out approaches, the small time thug makes it very clear that his team must win, no matter what the cost to friend…or family. In the end, it all boils down to who has game and who has the courage and command to take the ball Above the Rim.
For its first hour, Above the Rim is a surprisingly effective, engrossing drama about hoop dreams and hard lessons. It presents its characters in gradual, intricate sketches, never fully explaining them or their motives too precisely. As Shep, the once great basketball star haunted by his troubled and tragic past, Leon is a wonderful wounded presence, stoic and strong without being dull. On the opposite end is the late, great Tupac Shakur, who at this point in his short career was turning into a fine actor. All fire and bravado, Shakur's Birdie could be mistaken for one dimensional, a typical thug. But in his scenes with Leon, recalling their hard life growing up together as brothers, a surprising depth rises up, showing through the tough guy stance. As Bug, Marlon Wayans adds the right amount of comic relief. But fans of one entertainer's recent, no holds comedy style will be amazed to see a dramatic Bernie Mac as Flip, a cocky homeless man. He is great, using that expressive, wide face of his to taunt as well as touch. Even the ancillary actors playing Kyle's mom and coach are fine. Only Duane Martin as Kyle is a little flat. Obviously hired for his skill with a basketball, Martin gives us a mostly one note, "it's all about me" portrayal of a prima donna star high school prospect that fails to connect. You can't wait for someone to knock him down off his pedestal, not because of his arrogance, but because he is all show and no substance. We haven't learned enough about him to care, and his "it's owed to me, I deserve it" attitude wears thin.
Unfortunately, as the big street Shoot Out Tournament looms before us, the film becomes a tad pat. For a while, director/co-screenwriter Jeff Pollack juggles the varying plotlines with skill and sophistication, never letting one dominate or undermine the others. But then we are stuck with an "all important big game" formula and numerous unanswered questions like if Kyle will make it to college, if Birdie's team will win, if they don't win, what will happen, if Kyle will play for him, if Kyle's mom and Shep will stay together, if Shep will forgive himself and play ball again, etcetera. We just have too many loose strings needing resolution in a short twenty minutes. And as the coincidences and inconsistent character choices start to fall into place, you sense the manipulation and the resulting disappointment. Still, Above the Rim is a good film. You will find yourself rooting for Kyle and Shep and hoping that some manner of payback is received by Birdie and his big mouthed, foul throwing right hand man. It's just that, in the end, you might find the package wrapped up too neatly and the bow too lacy for what is supposed to be a gritty slice of real street life. And it's this double dribble at the end of the movie that keeps a good sports film from turning into a true champion.
New Line is known for putting together impressive DVD packages and presentations for their titles, and as popular as this movie was upon its release, you would think that they'd go out of their way to offer something special. But instead, they sell Above the Rim like some low rent title, providing almost nothing in the way of extras or context content. With a selling point like the legendary Tupac or the hit soundtrack to work with, it would seem there'd be obvious areas to explore. But alas, we are stuck with just a few trailers and nothing else. However, we do get the option of viewing the film in widescreen or full frame. The transfer on both is very good, with no major defects and good sharp color and contrasts. Director Pollack doesn't do much compositionally with the film, so it would seem that a full screen treatment would be acceptable. That is, until you get to the basketball scenes, and suddenly the bland and scrap presentation total distracts from the action. The original 1.85:1 aspect ratio protects the integrity of the sports sequences (even if Pollack is guilty of some MTV style fast cutting). The sound is fine, in either DD 5.0 or 2.0. Above the Rim is a gripping, intelligent film about the lure of big money and the big time. Just remember that, unlike the film's final act, not all of life's problems can be resolved in a single shot, be it from a gun or to the hoop.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
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