Coming at the end of a full-court press of basketball movies, “Above the Rim” has the distinction of being in many ways the most interesting, yet also the most hackneyed. A fine cast and the movie’s general energy can’t overcome that mix of cliches and technical flaws, which should conspire to prevent any high flying at the box office.
Director/co-writer/producer Jeff Pollack seems to feel compelled to make all the obvious moves in telling this story of a talented high school basketball player torn between two brothers — one a drug-dealing street operator (Tupac Shakur), the other a school security guard (Leon) and former high school standout tormented by his past.
That alone might be enough to sustain a movie, but Pollack and co-writer Barry Michael Cooper keep firing off enough cliches to fill an NBA stat sheet. While that won’t necessarily put off urban teens drawn to the subject matter, it should limit room for a crossover to reach a wider audience.
The protagonist, Kyle-Lee (Duane Martin), is awaiting word about a Georgetown scholarship when life starts to get complicated, as he suddenly finds himself torn between his well-meaning coach and the local gangster Birdie (Shakur) over a playground basketball tournament.
He also clearly resents his mother’s budding involvement with the security guard who, despite the coach’s urging, still frets over the death of a friend and can’t bring himself to get involved in basketball again.
The irony is that “Above the Rim”– which in some ways conveys the fresh feel and edge of a low-budget independent production — mirrors so many tired plot elements from other recent efforts to cash in on basketball’s popularity, most notably a key wrinkle in “The Air Up There.”
The shame of it is that Martin (whose credits include “White Men Can’t Jump”) , Leon (“Cool Runnings”) and rapper Shakur (“Poetic Justice”) all exhibit smooth moves in their limited roles, even without much of an assist from the script.
Although the basketball action is reasonably authentic, the director seems too enamored with flashy dunks and spins that ultimately feel overly repetitive and choreographed.
In addition, the movie inadvertently sends a mixed message about violence, falling back on a cold-blooded killing — almost as an afterthought — to tie up its loose ends.
Shakur, who played a similar role in “Juice” and has spent his share of time in court recently offscreen, makes an effectively menacing heavy, while Martin and Leon both seem deserving of better-conceived vehicles.
Tech credits, however, are generally shoddy, with murky photography and occasionally garbled dialogue — drawbacks that contribute to “Above the Rim’s” failure to really get off the ground.