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.

Popular on Variety

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

  • (from left) Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson)

    Box Office: 'Hobbs & Shaw' Scores $102 Million Debut in China, Nears $600 Million Globally

    Universal’s “Hobbs & Shaw” returned to first place on international box office charts, thanks to a massive $102 million debut in China. The “Fast & Furious” spinoff, starring Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, collected another $120 million overseas, boosting its foreign tally to $441 million. “Hobbs & Shaw” is nearing the $600 million mark globally, [...]

  • Angel Has Fallen

    Box Office: 'Angel Has Fallen' Rises to No. 1 With $21 Million Debut

    “Angel Has Fallen,” the third chapter in Lionsgate and Millenium’s action franchise starring Gerard Butler, had a stronger opening weekend than expected, collecting $21.25 million during its first three days of release. Those ticket sales were enough to top domestic box office charts, bumping last weekend’s champ, Universal’s comedy “Good Boys,” to second place. Starring [...]

  • Amanda

    ‘Amanda’ Takes Home Best Int’l Film at 15th Sanfic

    SANTIAGO, Chile    French director Mikhael Hers’ “Amanda” scooped up the Best Int’l Film award Saturday (Aug. 24) at the 15th Santiago Int’l Film Fest (Sanfic), which reported a 20% audience uptick in the past two years and continues to grow its reputation as the most vibrant and prominent film festival in Latin America’s Southern [...]

  • disney d23

    Cruella, Kit Harington and Black Panther's Return: Everything We Learned at D23 Day Two

    Not to be outdone by the avalanche of series orders and casting announcements bolstering the new streaming series Disney Plus, Walt Disney Studios showed off its film wares in a marathon presentation at D23 on Saturday. The Anaheim, Calif. expo brought star power, if perhaps fewer surprises than Friday’s presentation, as fans in princess and [...]

  • Harvey Weinstein, Katie Holmes, Taylor Swift'The

    Taylor Swift Downplays Association With Harvey Weinstein

    Taylor Swift’s association with disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was among the topics the singer addressed in a revealing new interview with The Guardian. Weinstein held producer credits for the movies “One Chance” and “The Giver,” both of which featured Swift — in the former, a song, and in the latter, a supporting role. She [...]

  • Breaking Bad Movie

    'Breaking Bad' Movie: Watch the First Teaser for 'El Camino'

    In case you hadn’t heard, Emmy-winning drama “Breaking Bad” is cooking up a movie sequel. On Saturday, after details of Netflix’s project quietly leaked online, the streaming giant issued the first teaser for “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie,” which will be released on October 11. Starring Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman, the “Breaking Bad” [...]

  • Samara Weaving and Adam Brody Big

    'Ready or Not': That Time Samara Weaving Hit Andie MacDowell in the Face

    Samara Weaving didn’t mean to hurt Andie MacDowell, but she did just that while they were rehearsing for their new horror dark comedy “Ready or Not.” “I hit Andie MacDowell in the face by accident,” Weaving says on this week’s episode of “The Big Ticket,” Variety and iHeart’s movie podcast. “It was horrible. It was [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content