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Compelling 'King Richard' hands Will Smith the role of a lifetime

An unconventional sports drama that pulls back the curtain on the man with the plan. You'll love the Willams family even more after you watch this film.
Credit: Warner Brothers Pictures

ST. LOUIS — Every parent in the world thinks their kids are going to change the world, but Richard Williams actually wrote it all down.

In a 78-page plan of action, Williams set a course early on for his daughters (Serena and Venus) that would shake up the world, as he put it. The world was tennis and suffice to say, the plan worked out big time. But what "King Richard" tells us about is the man behind the plan: the guy who gathered critics due to his unconventional beliefs and stout persistence in a certain regimen, risking everything for his kids.

Played remarkably by Will Smith, Williams was the epitome of old fashioned: hustling his daughters to the court even in pouring rain, driving around in a beat-up family van, and making homemade videos and pamphlets to show potential tennis coaches. Richard is the kind of guy who would accept no for an answer, but tell you that the wrong decision was being made. Showing up in a tennis jacket and high shorts with a voice that started slowly before gathering force, it was Richard's way or the highway.

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (he directed "Joe Bell" with Mark Wahlberg), "King Richard" wisely focuses on a pivotal period in the Williams family journey, instead of starting when they were kids and ending when they were giants. Taking a page from the unconventional sports drama that also happens to be a biopic that millions around the world know well, Green keeps the focus on Smith's unstoppable patriarch, deconstructing many myths about Richard and how he did things.

While many saw him as a guy angling for attention, he was the good dad who pulled his daughter out of practice so she could go to Disney World and not burn out too soon as a young athlete.

The film thankfully doesn't open with a shot of a young woman tossing a ball up in the air at Wimbledon before changing to a young girl practicing her serve on a racketty court. The screenplay for "King Richard" is smarter than that, technically efficient and inspiring without overdoing it on either front. We get to meet the coaches (Tony Goldwyn's Paul Cohen and Jon Bernthal's Rick Macci, both terrific) that had an impact on Serena and Venus' lives, and are served plenty of hard-hitting and well-shot tennis sequences.

But the real power of this movie comes in the less flashy interactions, like the firm yet fair conversations between Richard and his wife, Oracene "Brandy" Williams, played with compassion and fire by Aunjanue Ellis. In making controversial decisions like holding the girls out of match play and junior tournaments, he caught flack from outside and inside the home. Smith and Ellis make an earnest yet honest cinematic couple who both helped shape the lives of their kids. It was Brandy who sharpened Venus' serve, and Green doesn't skimp on her impact.

A scene where the police come to the Williams house due to a neighbor's call for child endangerment provides Smith with the scene of a lifetime, and he aces the sequence. I'm not sure if it's his best performance, but it's surely up there with "Pursuit of Happiness" as a transformative representation of a real person. While creating a character from scratch can produce magic, finding the heart and soul of a well-known public figure who was more polarizing than inspiring early on comes with pressure and risk. Smith's portrayal is heartfelt and sincere, bolstered by character work and a moderate amount of "non Will Smith" screen attributes.

He dials down the usual easygoing charm and pulls back the curtain to deftly reveal a complicated yet compassionate individual. The performance should net him his third Oscar nomination and produce another hit movie at the box office.

Regardless of its dual streaming/theater release, "King Richard" is kettle corn for audiences looking for something deeper than superheroes playing dress-up and reluctant hero tales. It's a real deal of a story and handled with care by its cast and crew, especially the two young actresses who play Serena and Venus. Demi Singleton and Saniyya Sidney, respectively, both turn in fine performances, holding their own with their co-stars and performing more than capably in the tennis scenes.

Parents want the best for their kids, but sometimes won't go to the lengths to see it happen. Richard Williams stopped at nothing to get one message across: his girls were going to change the world--and they did. The reality of knowing the ending of such an inspiring story connects so potently here due to the genuine time spent on the man behind the plan.

Anyone can hit a few keys on the internet and find that Richard's plan worked: Venus won Wimbledon five times and Serena holds 23 Grand Slam titles. But they'll have to watch "King Richard" in order to soak up all the details and feel the power of the tale.

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