FILM REVIEW – CRITICAL THINKING. Starring John Leguizamo, Corwin Tuggles, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Rachel Bay Jones, Michael Kenneth Williams. Written by Dito Montiel. Directed by John Leguizamo. Unrated, but contains violence and profanity. 117 minutes.
Fisch out of water
A shrewd deployment of two formulas for which I am a total sucker, John Leguizamo’s CRITICAL THINKING combines the underdog sports movie with the inspirational teacher saga, telling the true story of an underserved, misfit Miami high school that became the first inner-city team to win a national chess championship. The movie is set in 1998 and could quite easily have been made then as well, calling to mind films from that era like “Dangerous Minds” and “Searching For Bobby Fischer” in its foursquare family entertainment values, except a little rougher around the edges than the latter and not nearly as full of shit as the former. You won’t find a lot of surprises in this story, but then the reason these formulas are so familiar is because they work.
An electrifying talent who never quite landed the superstar movie career he deserves, Leguizamo makes what’s for all intents and purposes his feature directing debut (he helmed a boxing flick for HBO back in 2003 that seems to have vanished off the face of the planet) and does his best “Welcome Back, Kotter” routine as Mario Martinez, who runs an early morning elective called Critical Thinking at Miami Jackson High. The school’s snooty principal (Rachel Bay Jones) considers it an hour of free babysitting for her most troublesome pupils, while Martinez – nicknamed Mr. T by the kids – explains that they have two options in his class, “You can do nothing or you can play chess.”
The rambunctiously funny classroom sequences, in which Martinez tries to turn game strategies into life lessons, sometimes feel like an extension of Leguizamo’s wonderful recent one-man-show, “Latin History For Morons,” which likewise found the performer in front of a blackboard, putting on a cavalcade of comic personas to tell slangy stories left out of most school textbooks. His star students are Sedrick (Corwin Tuggles), who struggles at home with an alcoholic, abusive father (Michael Kenneth Williams, doing depressingly little with an underwritten role) and Ito (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), who’s been drifting dangerously close to the orbit of their Dade County neighborhood’s most dangerous drug dealer.
Screenwriter Dito Montiel chronicled his own childhood on the streets – and launched Channing Tatum’s career while he was at it – in his 2006 “A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints.” He and Leguizamo make an interesting choice roughly fifteen minutes into the film. Right when we’re starting to settle into the warm and fuzzy familiarity of these tropes, there’s an abrupt, out-of-nowhere shooting that’s just business as usual in this part of town, destabilizing any sense of complacency and reminding us how much is truly at stake here for these kids. It casts a pall over the rest of the movie, keeping the audience aware that where we are, the worst can always happen.
Since the “sport” in this underdog sports movie happens to be chess, there’s not much Leguizamo can do in the way of training montages or captivating game play. (Though he does seem to have watched “The Color Of Money” a ton of times for camera tips.) “Critical Thinking” is focused less on the tournaments and more on the obstacles faced by our team in getting there. Their school doesn’t have a budget for this kind of thing, and the students’ colorful attempts to raise funding sometimes fall short of legality. It’s impossible not to be roused by their victories over the white preppies from private schools, with our self-described “hoodrats” talking smack over the chessboard like they’re on a basketball court.
“Critical Thinking” almost falls apart in the final reel, with cheesy graphics out of an old ‘90s video game laid over the national tournament and a choppy, unclear resolution to Ito’s storyline. But it’s carried over the finish line by sincerity, goodwill, and this enormously appealing cast. “I appreciate your inspirational speeches and shit,” Sedrick tells his teacher after an emotional revelation. “You’re corny as hell, but I like where you’re coming from,” indicating that this young man could grow up to be a fine film critic.•••
Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.