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Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green
Written by Zach Baylin
Starring Will Smith, Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton
Classification PG; 138 minutes
Opens in theatres Nov. 19
There are movie stars, and then there is Will Smith. As Netflix’s alleged blockbuster Red Notice reminded me the other week, Hollywood is currently facing a deficit of genuine personalities. Sure, we know who Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot technically are, but when saddled with the wrong project, or even the right one, they each dissolve into mere ephemeral names. Highly sculpted sentient beings composed of equal parts familiarity and disposability. Will Smith, on the other hand, he’s a real-deal superstar. He bleeds charisma.
Which is good news for the new movie King Richard, which simply wouldn’t exist, or exist with quite so much purpose, without Will Smith’s central, towering performance.
Playing Richard Williams, the intensely devoted but also just plain intense father to tennis phenoms Venus and Serena Williams, Smith elevates a standard-issue sports-drama into the stratosphere of sky-high entertainment. Never away from the screen for more than a second or two, Smith gives absolutely everything he has to play a man with the world’s largest chip on his shoulders.
A security guard in Compton, Calif., Richard spends his nights on the graveyard shift and his days moulding his preteen daughters Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) into the greatest tennis players the world has ever seen. The elite, nearly all-white world of professional tennis constantly shrugs Richard off, and his neighbours think he’s either deluded or an abusive parent. But Richard has a 78-page plan for his family’s future, and, well, you know what happens next.
The great trick of King Richard is that it doesn’t rely on our impossible ignorance of Venus and Serena’s eventual triumph. You become invested in every step of the girls’ journeys, of every serve of every match, because you cannot wait to see what Smith will do next. As the unorthodox and uncompromising Richard, Smith balances pride, shame, devotion, delusion and pure-grit determination with such a natural ease that you can’t help but become enamoured with this story of a father who, if we’re being honest, seems like a total nightmare.
But going down that path means interrogating the real life behind this “real-life” drama. From its outset, King Richard – which is executive produced by the Williams sisters – never once pretends to be an actual warts-and-all underdog story.
That would require, for starters, focusing as much time on Venus and Serena as it does Richard. (Admit it: It’s more than a little gross that the first big-screen movie about the world’s most famous Black female athletes focuses not on them, but their father.) It would also require devoting more than a mere mention, during an argument between Richard and wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis), to the family that Richard had before meeting Brandy. And then there is Richard’s talent in huckstering together the Venus and Serena publicity machine, which is shrugged off here as just the media-savvy whims of a prophetic genius and not questioned as, say, the machinations of a man who has trouble separating family and fame.
And, you know, once you surrender yourself to what King Richard is doing, and what it’s not doing, that’s okay. It’s especially easy to shut up and go along with whatever rosy view the Williams family wishes to preserve because Smith is here the whole time, helping sell the story.
Wisely, director Reinaldo Marcus Green never gets in his star’s way. Every single scene, even Venus and Serena’s matches where Richard is off-court, is executed with an impressive devotion to whatever Smith is doing. We watch him watch, and somehow the dramatic tension remains. Green, whose last film was the tremendously bad faux tear-fest Joe Bell, keeps his film humming with as much keep-it-coming-keep-it-coming energy as Richard put toward ensuring his daughters would become legends in their own time.
All that, and King Richard makes room for some impressive supporting performances, all of them naturally revolving around Smith’s orbit. Sidney and Singleton acquit themselves well as Venus and Serena, and Ellis gets a handful of nice moments as a mother more quietly, but just as fiercely, committed to her daughters. But it’s Jon Bernthal, usually cast as a rough tumbler, who benefits the most as the girls’ devoted but frequently exasperated coach Rick Macci. Bernthal’s floppy hair and impressive moustache almost threaten to outshine Smith at certain points.
But ultimately, this is Will Smith’s game. All hail the king.
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.