Will Smith Hits an Ace in 'King Richard' Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

Starring Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Jon Bernthal, Tony Goldwyn
Will Smith Hits an Ace in 'King Richard' Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green
It's hard not to feel manipulated by an underdog sports movie — but even if King Richard doesn't quite transcend the genre's typical narrative of triumph in the face of adversity, Will Smith's compelling depiction of a complex character resonates beyond the predictable payoff.

Smith plays Richard Williams, the father of tennis megastars Venus and Serena Williams. He's a devoted, loving dad with a tendency to be overbearing and frustratingly stubborn. (At least he's devoted to the five kids who appear here; there's an allusion to his children from past relationships, whom he seemingly neglects.) Working the nightshift as a security guard, he spends his days coaching the girls himself at the local court in Compton, CA. He's pushy enough to get Venus a free professional coach, and then another — but even as his daughters excel, he has a tendency to put himself at the centre of the narrative and interfere, seemingly to the detriment of the young tennis stars he helped nurture.

Knowing that the real-life Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) are two of the greatest to ever play the sport, the ending of King Richard is already obvious. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green and screenwriter Zach Baylin find some degree of conflict in the gangs that hang around the tennis courts and the disapproving neighbour who calls the cops for no apparent reason. But for the most part, the only antagonist here is Richard himself, as he risks sabotaging the sisters' careers by blindly believing in his own "plan" for their success.

Smith brilliantly balances Richard's loveable tendencies with his infuriating ones. Hearing the actor adopt a Louisiana accent is a little jarring at first, and he's got far less swagger than he carries in most of his best-known performances — but Smith disappears into the role, perfectly capturing a man who seems to be failing upwards. Are his daughters brilliant athletes because of their dad, or in spite of him? King Richard is an intriguing push-and-pull that, to its credit, never quite arrives upon a simple answer.

King Richard doesn't have quite enough about the Williams sisters themselves. The final passage of the movie, which shifts the focus onto Venus while alluding to Serena's future success, is a welcome change of pace. There's probably another interesting biopic to be made about the Williams sisters and what they experienced under the watchful eye of their dad. But as a character study of a man who's playing the long game while seemingly not able to see past his own nose, King Richard is an ace. (Warner Bros.)