Wednesday 22 June 2011

Above the Rim (1994)

In the early part of the 90s, there was a run of inner-city dramas, thanks mainly to Spike Lee leading the way through the 80s. As such, there was now a market for films like Menace II Society, Boyz n the Hood, New Jack City, Sugar Hill, Friday and so on. There were some common tropes and themes in these movies, amongst the most common being basketball, crime and the desire to make it out of the hood. For Jeff Pollack’s 1994 debut as director and co-writer, he took on these elements and gave us Above the Rim.

Kyle (Duane Martin) is a promising young basketball star looking to use his talent to make to the big leagues, but his quick temper often gets in the way. Looking for a shortcut, he falls in with Birdie (Tupac Shakur), a local drug dealer who wants Kyle’s talent to win him money. Meanwhile, Birdie’s big brother Shep (Leon), a troubled former basketball star now employed as a security guard, tries to keep Kyle on the right track.

The strongest thing that this film has going for it is its cast. There isn’t really a poor player there, and collectively they raise the game of the whole movie. Duane Martin convinces as the brash and arrogant, but talented young Kyle; Leon’s onscreen presence raises what could have been a rather bland role to another level; and Tupac Shakur, who has proved his worth as an actor on more than one occasion, brings a needed edge to Birdie… even if it’s not exactly a stretch for him to play a criminal thug.

Decent work comes from the supporting cast, too. Marlon Wayans does funny and pitiful as only he can; Wood Harris’ Motaw is a suitably threatening figure as Birdie’s right hand man; Bernie Mac makes a decent impression, even if his character is really only there to be abused; and Tonya Pinkins is solid as Kyle’s mother.

Probably the strongest aspect to the film, though, is the soundtrack. It may put off some who don't care for rap or hip hop, but it's an incredibly strong collection of work and probably amongst the best soundtracks of the 90s. If you're old enough to remember when MTV actually played music, it's pretty much a guarantee you will have heard 'Regulate', the moody song of gangland life from Warren G and Nate Dog. The soundtrack is unquestionably better than the film it's attached to.

For the good points to be had in Above the Rim, there are also some pretty bad points. The script is rife with cliché, so you pretty much always know where each scene is going to go. As such, relationships are not subject to any great surprises either.

Also, there are some technical issues throughout, primarily with sound, so the dialogue in some scenes is difficult to hear, such as the opening sequence or anytime we’re in Birdie’s club. As it is though, these can be mostly chalked up to the relative inexperience of Pollack as a writer and director, the kind of thing that should get better over time.

Perhaps the biggest problem in the film is the manner in which everything gets tied up in the end. Kyle’s hot-headed ways seem to resolve themselves a little too quickly, as does Shep’s difficulty with his past, so it feels like the filmmakers had maybe become a little impatient to get things over with. Also, the use of violence as a way of resolving issues is a little unsettling, which again likely comes from the lack of a real ending. If there had just been an extra 15 or 20 minutes to allow things to play out in a more considered manner, it may have felt a bit more satisfying.

Above the Rim is a decent enough flick. The cast is strong, the energy’s pretty good and the basketball scenes are done well. It does have more than its fair share of clichés going, there’s the odd misstep on the technical side of things and it all feels a little rushed to end. However, it does manage to be a rather effective little basketball movie. It’s not for everyone, but if this is your kind of thing, check it out.

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