Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Turning Points

By Susan Ellis

MAY 11, 1998:  Director Spike Lee’s handiest device is the montage. It’s not very subtle – Lee never is – but it does work to make a particular point. Take, for instance, the one in Do The Right Thing, in which people of different races are shown spewing slurs to demonstrate the pervasiveness of bigotry. Then there’s the one in Crooklyn where two angel-dusted friends float through their neighborhood embodying the sort of drippy, unhinged feel of the early Seventies.

In his latest film, the basketball drama He Got Game, Lee chooses a neighborhood pick-up game for this effect. The scene is set to a Western theme, as the players slam and taunt. This is the game at its most basic, its purest, and the players are today’s urban cowboys, the heroes.

Yet, outside the boundaries, there is a spoiling influence – the pressure on these kids to make good, for their families and their friends. Hoop Dreams, the excellent 1994 documentary following two inner-city Chicago kids as they commit their lives to a shot at the NBA, serves as proof of the back-breaking nature the game can take. After the film came out, Lee said he was going to make his own version of these boys’ story. And while years have passed and Lee has released a number of movies in between, this is pretty much it.

In Hoop Dreams, one of the boys had a father who was, to the growing resentment of his son, in and out of his life and on and off drugs. In He Got Game, this man comes in the form of Jake (Denzel Washington). Jake has been released from jail for one week in order to convince his basketball whiz son, Jesus (played by Milwaukee Buck Ray Allen) to play for the governor’s alma mater, with the promise that if he succeeds in his mission he’ll be released from jail early. Jake is not the only one looking for salvation from his aptly named son; Jesus is surrounded by people with a vested interest in the decisions he makes.

Jake (Denzel Washington) pleads for mercy from Jesus (Ray Allen).

Lee’s love of the game is apparent. And while he pooh-poohs some of its excesses, he’s not above reveling in some others. He leads Jesus through a variety of temptations, one being a comic turn on a recruiting trip where Jesus is feted by two naked, busty white women. He also crams a number of cameos from an all-star lineup of college coaches and pros such as Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal. Lee’s ace-in-the-hole, though, is Washington’s humble performance. Despite all Lee’s name-dropping, Washington’s the real professional of He Got Game.

A comedy about a kid descending into madness doesn’t sound very amusing, but director Neil Jordan has a way of sneaking it in on you in The Butcher Boy.

Eomonn Owens and Stephen Rea in The Butcher Boy.

The kid is one Francie Brady (Eamonn Owens), a 12-year-old Irish lad of the early Sixties with a mop of red hair and the disposition of a tornado. Francie has come up with a coping mechanism to deal with his horrific surroundings – his dad’s a drunk, his mother’s suicidal – by making more trouble than what he sees at home. He’s set up a world where the enemy is an uptight neighbor woman, Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw) and his only ally is his friend Joe (Alan Boyle). Francie has set out to destroy Mrs. Nugent by harassing her son and then by entering her home, smashing her cakes, defacing her property with lipstick, and finally defecating on the floor. His actions get him sent away to a Catholic boys’ home, where he rules. But when Francie gets a letter from Joe saying that he’s been fraternizing with Mrs. Nugent’s son, Francie’s psyche develops a crack and the Virgin Mary (played by Sinead O’Connor) begins to speak to him.

Owens gives a terrific, energetic performance as the manic Francie. He twirls and screams and pounces on men twice his size. He cannot be contained. His actions bespeak a truly lost soul. But his rapid-fire antics leave no time for much sympathy so that, consequently, the brutal climax comes as something of a shock and makes The Butcher Boy the most heartbreaking comedy around.

From the start of The Spanish Prisoner, David Mamet’s Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) is pegged as a patsy. Joe is a businessman, the creator of something called The Process, a formula that will allow his company to dominate the world market. The Process has led him to a retreat on a Caribbean island, where the company’s secretary Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon) peppers him with labels such as “boy scout” and “gent.” On the plane ride home, she tells him, “You never know who anybody is.”

Joe, in not-so-short-order, realizes that he should have taken that as a warning. While on the island, Joe bumps into Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), who invites him to dinner once back in New York and flatters him with a chance to meet his wealthy sister. Joe has fallen for a con called the Spanish Prisoner, in which the mark is promised money and the hand of a beautiful woman for helping them both out of a foreign country.

This Spanish Prisoner is not as straightforward as the con game. Mamet, who also directs, has offered a crooked path that turns and twists at every opportunity. His presentation is cleverly coy. Locked doors, closed curtains, and a well-placed thumb shield illumination. As Mamet doles out a clue here, a hint there, it’s sometimes difficult to keep score. But by that point, he’s already got you by the collar.

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