King Richard: Figurehead, by David Bax
Almost as soon as it started, Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard set off my Bad Movie sensors. Kris Bowers’ score, especially in the early scenes, trades off between plucky strings and bum-bum bass lines in a way that feels so familiar that it screams disposability. In some ways–particularly those concerning the actors–the movie will go on to shed that first impression. But, for the most part, the music fits. King Richard is rote and, worse, completely unchallenging.
At least it’s informative, to whatever extent this polished-up biopic can be trusted. If you don’t follow professional tennis closely enough to already know it, you’ll get the story of where two of the sport’s biggest stars, sisters Venus and Serena Williams, came from. Intriguingly, though, they are supporting characters here. Screenwriter Zach Baylin shows us their formative years instead through they eyes of their father, Richard (Will Smith), who, as legend would have it, essentially willed his daughters to be the best in the world from birth.
Smith is captivatingly immersed in the lead role, perhaps even to a default. King Richard quickly establishes itself as one of those movies that exists primarily to be a showcase for its central performance. Smith is no stranger to these kinds of vehicles; this film has a lot in common with Concussion, another movie in which the star puts on a voice and delivers a series of emotional speeches.
King Richard deserves the criticism it has received for sanitizing and even glorifying Williams’ oppressive parenting style; in one scene, he makes a seemingly sincere argument for just letting kids be kids, a position that is startling incongruous with everything we’ve seen so far. But the film also contains a thought-provoking counterargument. As Venus and Serena start competing with other girls their age, we immediately see that domineering parents are not at all rare in youth tennis. But Black people are. Maybe there’s something else motivating the particular attention paid to Williams’ methodologies.
Like many sports movies, King Richard comes alive when we actually see the sport being played. Pamela Martin’s editing makes the gameflow and the stakes coherent even to those of us who find tennis impenetrable. And Robert Elswit’s smooth yet urgent cinematography makes it a thrill to watch. In one competition scene late in the film, Elswit sets up the camera on rails behind Venus’ opponent, dollying back and forth to keep up with the volley, giving us an inkling of an impression how strenuous it must be like to be subject to the Williams sisters.
Experiential and cinematic moments like that are too few, though. King Richard adheres to the rulebook, giving us a conveniently structured interpretation of actual events and then sticking some real life footage at the end as cherrypicked proof of its own verisimilitude. When are biopics gonna stop with that gimmick?