Will Smith Hits A Career High As ‘King Richard’ (Movie Review)

Opening in theaters and streaming on HBO Max (for 30 days) this weekend,  King Richard arrives just in time for awards season. The biopic focuses on a crucial three-year span in the lives of Venus and Serena Williams, their mom, their sisters and, the titular king/father played by Will Smith. Warner Bros. hopes to serve up a win with the Academy of Motion Pictures of Arts & Sciences by releasing a feature that critics and audiences alike claim Hollywood too often doesn’t make anymore. The true story about a family from Compton struggling to survive the streets as well as the highly competitive tennis circuit would almost certainly be a bonafide hit in non-pandemic times. As it stands, WB should be more than satisfied that, regardless of the box office receipts, they’ve delivered one of the best family dramas in years. As for Smith, a third Best Actor nomination, if not a win, is undoubtedly in his future.

Set in the early 90s, Richard Williams (Smith) and his wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis) are raising five girls. Two of them, Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), have been training to become the greatest tennis stars of all time since they could walk. With Venus now at the ripe old age of twelve, they might be ready to take their game to the next level if they can procure a professional coach. Richard tirelessly works nights as a security guard. By day he trains the pair at less than ideal nearby tennis courts. Gangs and other crappy conditions are obstacles not easily avoided in Los Angeles, 1991. Seeing their father roughed up by local thugs is not at all unusual. So, when the opportunity to be trained in a safe environment by a world-renowned coach (Tony Goldwyn) presents itself, saying yes is a no-brainer.

Or is it? Richard loves his daughters, but he has issues that plague him mentally and physically. He justifiably distrusts the rich white country clubs, which suddenly aim to shower his girls with lucrative contracts. Still, Richard, at the shock of his family too often, is Venus and Serena’s career saboteur as well as champion. Richard talks a big game and makes deals to open doors professionally, only to refuse to let Venus (the older of two who becomes the star) compete. Will he be able to know when the right time to let her play professionally is?

The film’s heart is Smith’s performance which switches between a supportive father and the worst kind of narcissistic personality. When I saw the trailers, I figured this would be another film that only showed the good side of this controversial figure in sports. Thankfully, director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men) is far more interested in showcasing the full range of Richard’s life: the highs, the lows, and everywhere in between. Smith, now in his 50s, relishes the chance to play every scene entirely focused and lived in. He’s remarkable. Smith uses his movie star persona to let us into a larger-than-life figure with a complicated interior life. On the big screen, it’s the most developed role for him since I Am Legend. It may seem like a weird comparison, but the parallels to men trapped in a constant survival mode aren’t all that different.

The supporting cast is also excellent. Ellis’ turn as matriarch Brandy is not to be overshadowed by Smith. She’s tasked with protecting her children from the world, which, at times, includes Richard. Jon Bernthal plays coach Rico Macci. I’ve never quite gelled with the actor’s darker roles like Shane on The Walking Dead, but he’s pitch-perfect as a guy constantly under Richard’s thumb. I’ve been a fan of Sidney, who plays Venus, since Fox’s short-lived The Passage. Both she and Singleton’s (Serena) roles as arguably the biggest tennis stars ever have less screen time than Smith but leave an impression regardless. A big finale centered around numerous tennis matches highlights the talents of these two young stars.

King Richard can be a lot like most sports dramas with the “rise and fall and rise” formula, yet the emotional connection with the whole cast cannot be understated. You’d think after Netflix’s mesmerizing Queen’s Gambit, there’d be less ways to impress, but Will Smith and co. have delivered an underdog tale that is at once fresh and just might be timeless.

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