Sports dramas’ lack of spontaneous unpredictability has long been their weakest link, especially when compared with real-world athletics, and “Wolves” is no different, nearly undone by rusty cliches. Detailing the travails of a prep-school phenom as he strives to fulfill his own hard-court dreams while coping with his gambling-addict father, it’s a showcase for some fine acting and even finer basketball action, but neither are enough to cover for this story’s enervating formulaic construction. Still, a standout performance by Michael Shannon should help it recruit modest theatrical attention before drafting a bigger fan base on home formats.
A highlight-reel celeb at his Gotham high school, senior Anthony (newcomer Taylor John Smith) has been given the moniker “Saint” for his heavenly sharpshooting prowess. Nonetheless, as a practice scrimmage makes clear, he’s likely to back down from intimidating trash-talking and to shrink in big moments — a reticence that can be traced back to his bond with father Lee (Shannon), an English professor and author who spends the first third of “Wolves” dispensing writing tips that double as commentary about the film itself. As he rightly tells his class, execution is more important than intention, and this narrative device is the first of many hoary ones used by writer-director Bart Freundlich (“The Myth of Fingerprints”), whose script exhibits a dogged adherence to convention.
Whereas Anthony demonstrates an unselfishness born from lack of toughness, Lee is an arrogant bully who jeopardizes his son and wife Jenny’s (Carla Gugino) future by wagering himself into lethal trouble with a variety of gangsters. Lee’s high-stakes habit is destined to doom his clan, though his self-destructiveness is also rooted in a more typical hang-up regarding the fact that his promising baseball career was undone by his domineering father — a pattern that he now seeks to repeat with Anthony, whose accomplishments, and the admiration they garner, inspire a thinly veiled sneer to creep across Lee’s face.
Compounding these familiar dynamics, Anthony finds himself in romantic trouble with girlfriend Victoria (Zazie Beetz), whose decision to resolve a pregnancy crisis is crudely equated by Freundlich with one of Lee’s many betting losses. Luckily, the teen discovers a surrogate paternal figure in Socrates (John Douglas Thompson). A former Nets player who hoops at Manhattan’s West Fourth Street Courts (cue rugged hip-hop on the soundtrack), Socrates dishes sagacious advice about playing (and being) strong via a lesson in dunking.
Offering even more encouragement is uncle Charlie (Chris Bauer), yet another productive male role model designed to offset Lee’s me-first wretchedness, and to help make sure Anthony matures into the type of man who might win over the Cornell coach who remains unsure about whether the 18-year-old deserves a scholarship.
The basketball games in “Wolves” are some of the most naturalistic in recent cinematic memory, thanks to actors who can actually play and choreography that looks like it’s unfolding in real time. Led by an impressive Smith, who’s equally comfortable handling the ball and his off-the-court scenes opposite Shannon and Gugino, the film’s players — frequently bad-mouthing opponents and each other with profane intensity — provide a measure of authenticity to the team’s race to playoff glory.
The same can’t be said about “Wolves” narrative, which piles on worn-out elements with uninhibited determination. Its various twists all lead to a championship game in which virtually everything is on the line, but both the journey to, and outcome of, this titanic title bout has been borrowed from myriad sports-movie predecessors. Freundlich’s assured lensing lends weight to his character-driven moments, Gugino does the best she can with a largely thankless suffering-mom role, and Shannon embodies Lee — a man whose nastier impulses mask more pathetic jealousy and self-loathing — with magnetic full-bore intensity. Even so, the film regurgitates familiar routines until it becomes almost absurdly mechanical, its every move easily anticipated long before its been made.