You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Life of a King’

A well-intentioned but thuddingly obvious addition to the 'Stand and Deliver' subgenre of high-school inspirational dramas.

Cuba Gooding Jr., Malcolm Mays, Richard T. Jones, Paula Jai Parker, Carlton Byrd, Lisagay Hamilton, Dennis Haysbert, Kevin Hendricks, Pepi Sonuga, Jordan Calloway, Rachae Thomas.

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.

Film Review: 'Life of a King'

Reviewed at Raleigh Studios, Los Angeles, June 12, 2013. (In Los Angeles Film Festival — Free Screenings.) Running time: 101 MIN.

Production: A Serena Films and Animus Films production. Produced by Tatiana Kelly, Jim Young. Co-producers, Steak House, Valerie Stadler, Mary Vernieu.

Crew: Directed by Jake Goldberger. Screenplay, Goldberger, Dan Wetzel, David Scott. Camera (color, HD), Mark Schwartzbard; editor, Julie Garces; music, Eric V. Hachikian; music supervisor, Gabe Hilfer; production designer, Michael Fitzgerald; art director, Rodrigo Cabral; set decorator, Siobhan O'Brien; costume designer, Sarah Trost; sound, Cody Peterson; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Michael J. McDonald; line producer, Dominic Ottersbach; assistant director, Cory Johnson; second unit director, Niles Roth; casting, Mary Vernieu, Lindsay Graham.

With: Cuba Gooding Jr., Malcolm Mays, Richard T. Jones, Paula Jai Parker, Carlton Byrd, Lisagay Hamilton, Dennis Haysbert, Kevin Hendricks, Pepi Sonuga, Jordan Calloway, Rachae Thomas.

More Film

  • Jim Jarmusch in 'Carmine Street Guitars'

    Film Review: 'Carmine Street Guitars'

    “Carmine Street Guitars” is a one-of-a-kind documentary that exudes a gentle, homespun magic. It’s a no-fuss, 80-minute-long portrait of Rick Kelly, who builds and sells custom guitars out of a modest storefront on Carmine Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, and the film touches on obsessions that have been popping up, like fragrant weeds, in [...]

  • Missing Link Laika Studios

    ‘Missing Link’ Again Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Annapurna Pictures claims the top spot in spending for the second week in a row with “Missing Link.” Ads placed for the animated film had an estimated media value of $5.91 million through Sunday for [...]

  • Little Woods

    Film Review: 'Little Woods'

    So much of the recent political debate has focused on the United States’ southern border, and on the threat of illegal drugs and criminals filtering up through Mexico. But what of the north, where Americans traffic opiates and prescription pills from Canada across a border that runs nearly three times as long? “Little Woods” opens [...]

  • Beyonce's Netflix Deal Worth a Whopping

    Beyonce's Netflix Deal Worth a Whopping $60 Million (EXCLUSIVE)

    Netflix has become a destination for television visionaries like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, with deals worth $100 million and $250 million, respectively, and top comedians like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle ($40 million and $60 million, respectively). The streaming giant, which just announced it’s added nearly 10 million subscribers in Q1, is honing in [...]

  • Roman Polanski extradition

    Academy Responds to Roman Polanski: 'Procedures Were Fair and Reasonable'

    UPDATE: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has responded to a lawsuit from director Roman Polanski that claimed he was unfairly expelled from the organization behind the Oscars. “The procedures taken to expel Mr. Polanski were fair and reasonable. The Academy stands behind its decision as appropriate,” a spokesperson said. The Academy’s statement [...]

  • Lorraine Warren dead

    Lorraine Warren, Paranormal Investigator Who Inspired 'The Conjuring,' Dies at 92

    Lorraine Warren, paranormal investigator and demonologist whose life inspired franchises like “The Conjuring” and “The Amityville Horror,” has died. She was 92. Warren’s son-in-law Tony Spera confirmed the news. Spera said on Facebook, “She died peacefully in her sleep at home.” He continued, “She was a remarkable, loving, compassionate and giving soul. To quote Will [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content