MRR Review: "Life of a King"

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Ex-felon, Eugene Brown, establishes a Chess Club for inner city teenagers in Washington, D.C.
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Rating: PG-13
Length: 100 minutes
Release Date: June 22, 2013
Directed by: Jake Goldberger
Genre: Drama

"Life of a King" follows the true-life story of Eugene, who spent 18 years incarcerated for bank robbery. During his time in prison, Brown spent a great deal of his time playing chess with fellow inmates. After his release, he ultimately established a nonprofit organization called Big Chair Chess Club. The purpose of the organization was to get kids off of the streets and onto a pathway toward more productive lives.

"Life of a King" begins with Eugene Brown serving time in prison. Brown is played by Academy Award winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr. Following his release from incarceration, Brown takes on a group of unruly, undisciplined high school students, serving time in detention. Through this encounter, Brown introduces the young people to chess. Ultimately, Brown creates and develops his Big Chair Chess Club for at-risk youth.

The film also focuses on Brown's personal life upon returning to the proverbial real world after his release from extended imprisonment. He naturally turns to his family, including a daughter who is a pre-law student and a son in juvenile detention. Both of his offspring spurn Brown's attempts to reunite with them. The lack of reconnection with his kin convinces Brown to reach out and attempt to better the lives of other disadvantaged young people. Brown realizes this after he garners employment as a janitor in a high school, a position that evolves to where he can teach chess to a particularly challenging group of teens.

In addition to an Oscar, Gooding received critical acclaim for his iconic supporting role in "Jerry Maguire." His "show me the money" line is still relevant in culture, nearly 20 years after "Maguire" hit the big screen. Gooding also received positive marks for his performance as a developmentally challenged individual in "Radio." Playing Eugene Brown represents what many in the industry consider Gooding's strongest performance as an actor outside of these two other fine films.

Although best known for his television work in shows like "The Unit" and "24," Dennis Haysbert turns in a solid supporting performance in "Life of a King." Haysbert plays Searcy, a fellow inmate who helps the Eugene Brown master his chess skills while incarcerated. Haysbert turns in a nuanced performance that adds greater complexity that oftentimes is seen in inmate supporting characters in movies.

Solid, albeit somewhat brief, performances are turned in by Rachael Thomas and Jordan Calloway as Brown's daughter and son. Each actor conveys a meaningful and realistic sense of what it feels like for a child to have a parent attempt to re-enter his or her life after being away in prison for years. Indeed, Brown's son never had direct contact with his father and the daughter's was limited to early childhood.

A powerful performance is provided by LisaGay Hamilton as the overworked, and usually overwhelmed, high school principal. After hiring Brown, she ultimately assigns him to monitor the kids in academic and behavioral detention. Ultimately, through this assignment, Brown comes to use the game of chess as a tool to reach these intelligent young people. Hamilton portrays the principal as a person in a harrowing position who still exercises wise judgment and keeps an open mind throughout the process.

The students learning chess as a means of refocusing their lives are played by an ensemble of largely unknown talent. They enliven the film and make compelling presentations, developing their characters in a group setting in a manner that engenders audience empathy and ongoing interest. They are a vital part of the cast.

"Life of a King" represents the second feature film directed by Jake Goldberger. He keeps the action apace and brings out a sense of realism in both the story and the interrelationships between the various characters. He also has a keen eye for detail, particularly when it comes to the visual aspects of the film.

Director Goldberger, Dan Wetzel and David Scott wrote the screenplay. Obvious attention is paid to developing believable dialogue between the characters. The screenplay deftly avoids clich├ęs and trite exchanges between characters, which often plagues films within this sub-genre. Moviegoers are not left feeling that they have "seen this before," but they do find a new take on the challenges faced by youth in hardscrabble environments.

Although "Life of a King" runs the risk of being another formula film about a man overcoming helping kids to overcome, this movies presents novel takes on the theme. This is accomplished both through a well-crafted screenplay, solid directing and good performances by the cast, particularly Cuba Gooding Jr., in the lead role of Eugene Brown.

Rating: 3 out of 5