King Richard ***1/2
One Liner Review:
Will Smith gives a powerhouse performance in a movie that is interesting, but also a little too long.
Talk about a powerhouse performance that carries a film, Will Smith is absolutely dynamite in this movie, giving the performance of his career as a truly fascinating character who isn’t afraid of making enemies. Richard Williams is a man who has a plan for his daughters. In fact, he’s had that plan from even before they were born (which means they really didn’t have any say in it.) He trains them to be tennis players, but he is also training them to be certain kinds of people. This means many times he puts life skills and academics ahead of tennis. That doesn’t exactly go over so well with the coaches and trainers who want to see these girls compete, as their father pulls them out of competitions whenever he feels like they are starting to go down the wrong path. Some of the best moments in this movie are the ones where Williams and his wife but heads and argue over their different views on how to raise their children. This is an incredibly fascinating movie.
King Richard is the movie where Will Smith gives the best performance of his career. Hands down. He was great in Ali, and really got the accent and arrogance down for that character, but here he’s taking it up a notch. Here, Smith is playing a character who not only has a strong accent that he pulls off flawlessly, and is not only arrogant, but is also a bit of a jerk. At times. Is he too hard on his kids? You betcha. But he’s also a hell of an interesting character to watch, never really knowing when to shut up, and driving all kinds of people nuts who deal with him.
It helps that we know things will turn out pretty great for this character. Smith is playing Richard Williams, the father of tennis greats Serena and Venus Williams. He has this plan for his daughters that he has apparently had since they were born. In fact, even earlier than that. At the start of the movie, we watch as Richard goes around, from place to place, handing wealthy tennis investors pamphlets that advertise his two daughters as if they were a vacation resort. Williams has made the pamphlets himself and has a number of humorous quick conversations during this montage. He tells one man that when he learned how much money tennis stars make, he told his wife they need to have two more kids. He wasn’t kidding. This man was so obsessed with his plan, that instead of training the kids he already had, he and his wife had two other kids solely for the reason that they could start training them from the moment the kids were old enough to hold the racket.
The first time we meet the girls, they are running around delivering the yellow pages books to neighbors. This is a job that their father has given them, to show responsibility, and it also gets them into an entanglement with their neighbor across the street. The girls live in Compton, and their the neighbor is a woman who is a mother who has a daughter of her own. And she does not like the way that Richard and his wife are raising their kids. She tells the girls that in this moment, and later on in the movie she calls the police on the family when Richard has his daughters out practicing tennis in the rain. The irony is that this woman’s daughter is out on the streets doing drugs, (from what we can gather through conversation,) and that’s exactly what Richard is trying to avoid happening to his own girls. He talks about it throughout the movie, how it’s their job as parents to be hard on the kids, in order to keep them off the streets.
Speaking of the streets, growing up in Compton is not easy. Apparently the real life story is that Richard and his wife originally lived in a nicer area, but moved the family to Compton to intentionally give the kids adversity to grow up around, thinking that challenges would toughen them up and make them stronger. None of that is explored in this movie,. What we do get are a number of scenes of Richard getting beat up by the local thugs in the area. There is one crew in particular that starts out harassing the oldest daughter, Dundee, while Richard is practicing with his tennis stars, on the court. Dundee is sitting off to the side reading a book and these guys do all sorts of things to get her attention. When Richard approaches them and asks them to knock it off, one guy follows Richard back to the court and beats him up.
Later on, after Richard gets rejected by another coach and financier (this time Richard has upgraded from the pamphlet to a home video he made about his daughters,) he gets angry and drives off in the rain, leaving his family to finish up with his wife at a fast food restaurant. Richard goes off to practice on his own, and it’s here that the same local neighborhood thugs and bullies approach him. This time the same guy who beat Richard up earlier approaches him and talks about the terrible things he plans to do to Richard’s daughters. At that point, Richard turns around and beats the guy with his racket. This leads to the guys friends attacking and beating Richard. The moment doesn’t end there, however. Richard gets up and drives around looking for the guys who beat him. When he finds them leaving a convenience store, he parks his van in an alley, gets out, and readies his gun. He’s planning to shoot this guy. And as he walks forward, all ready to make his move, a car speeds down the road and does a drive by, killing the guy who Richard was about to kill himself. For Richard, this is luck. He was about to do something that would have changed his life forever, and most likely the lives of his daughters as well. Had he pulled the trigger on this guy, Richard would most likely have found himself locked up in jail.
This marks the end of the first part of our story. It’s the first third, and the pre coaches part. There will be no more violence in the movie, but it will be exciting in a different way, with Richard crossing and upsetting a lot of people, and making problems wherever he goes. First, though, he needs to get the girls a coach. And this time, he’s trying a new angle. No more brochures, pamphlets, or videos. This time, Richard marches his girls right onto a tennis court at a ritzy country club where a well-known coach is working with John McEnroe and Pete Sampris McEnroe gets angry about a call and storms off. That’s when Richard and the girls approach. They want this coach to watch the girls hit. He, at first refuses, saying he’s too busy. That’s when Richard asks Sampris if he minds and says, “Mac is gone, and judging from the way Pete is looking up, he might not never come back.” Mac is gone, Pete don’t mind, give the girls a chance.” They end up hitting with the coach, and this coach (played by veteran actor Tony Goldwyn,) agrees to take them on.
Only there’s just one catch. He will only train Venus. It’s just too much to ask him to train two tennis players at once, for no charge. And so Richard and the coach, Paul Cohen, begin working with Venus, while Richard’s wife trains Serena. There are montages that show all of this happening, and we learn that Richard’s wife, Brandy, is pretty tough herself. And very involved. Richard videotapes all of Venus’ training with Paul on his cam corder and then shows it to Serena to try and help her. And he also gets into quite a bit of heated discussions or arguments with Paul. One involves Richard’s philosophy on tennis and mantra that he keeps repeating, “open stance.” This has to do with the way his daughter is standing while on the court at all times, and Paul has other ideas. Paul trains Venus, but Richard is always there on the sidelines watching, and more often than not, he chimes in to give his own opinion about what his daughter should do. It’s usually “open stance,” that he’s preaching, but at one point it’s something else called “:pronating,” which Paul does not agree with.
When Paul tries to get Venus a sponsor, things go sour real fast. Venus is doing great, playing in tournaments. Richard likes her winning, but thinks both she and his other daughters are becoming too arrogant. After a tournament where Venus comes in first and is celebrating with her sisters, Richard gets angry at what he hears the girls saying and tells them to go to a candy store while he pulls over and lets them out of the van. Then he drives away. Luckily Brandy is there to reign him back in and help set him right. And then there’s that offer by wealthy coaches and financiers who work at a country club. They try to sell Richard on signing with them, but everything they say comes out wrong, starting with the idea that Richard has done an “incredible,” job training Venus. Richard takes this the wrong way, wondering if this man would say the same thing about a little white kid. He makes jokes about the people at the country club taking off their KKK hoods before Richard got there, and at one point he passes gas out loud in response to the offer.
This conflict that Richard has with the people who Paul has brought to meet with him, is so bad, that it causes Richard to fire Paul. That marks the end of Act 2. Really it ends with Brandy talking to Richard after Paul leaves. She’s not happy with him for deciding that Venus will no longer play in the Juniors (tournaments and competitions,) and also for firing Paul without talking to either her or Venus first. Brandy tells Richard that she stayed quiet while Paul was there, out of respect, but that next time she won’t. And this leads to their next coach, Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal.) This is the start of the final third of the movie. To be clear, the first third is about thirty minutes (before they sign with Paul,) and then there’s about an hour of working with Paul and another hour of working with Rick. And that’s a good thing, because we really spend a lot of time with each coach and get to know different training styles. And of course, in this final third, the tension rises, like it should in any good movie.
A big part of that is because Richard decides that Venus will no longer play in the Juniors. He doesn’t want her playing in any tournaments at all,. No competitions whatsoever. Instead, Richard wants her to focus on just being a kid, going to school, doing kid stuff, and yes, still practicing tennis. Rick literally buys the family a motor home just for them to drive down to Florida and relocate, and he also buys them a house, only to learn once the family arrives, that Richard is okay with Venus training with Rick, but not with her playing in competitions. The reasons is because Richard sees what happened to one of Rick’s other top students, and how she burned out and was now caught in a hotel room with drugs. And Richard doesn’t want that sort of thing happening to his own daughters. Only this decision causes all sorts of conflict. It causes conflict between Richard and Rick, between Richard and Venus, and also between Richard and his wife. And they finally have it out in a real confrontation in which Richard’s past is brought up. It’s all pretty exciting. This movie is loaded with conflict and drama, and it even makes the time to end on an exciting match. This movie is long, but it doesn’t feel that way. It moves and thrills, and Will Smith in particular is dynamite.