King Richard Review – IGN
This is an advanced review from the London Film Festival. King Richard opens in the U.S. and U.K. on Nov. 19 while it hits AUS screens on Jan. 13.
Will Smith made the transition from box office star to Oscar-nominated actor playing “The Greatest” in boxing biopic Ali. Now – some 20 years later – Smith delivers another powerhouse performance in a very different kind of sporting story, playing the guy behind the greatest in King Richard.
The self-styled sovereign in question is Richard Williams, father to tennis champions Venus and Serena, and the man who masterminded their meteoric rise to the top. And while there are times when the film feels like a sanitised version of his story, Smith nevertheless shines in the lead, combining charm, charisma, and a few less likable qualities to bring this complicated and at times inscrutable man to life.
Always a controversial character, Williams was outspoken in interviews and lively in the stands, while he developed a reputation for self-promotion that those running the sport frowned upon. But he was also the pushy parent with a plan. It all began when Williams saw Romanian player Virginia Ruzici on TV, heard how much she was earning, and decided to turn his family into a “champion-raising business.”
So before Venus and Serena were born, Williams wrote a 78-page manifesto plotting their path to glory, then forced the girls to live by those rules and regulations. The rest is sporting history, with Venus winning seven Grand Slam single titles, and Serena picking up 23 on her way to becoming one of the all-time greats. As she herself recently put it, “There would be no Venus and Serena if it wasn’t for Richard.”
The story starts in Compton, where Dad coaches his daughters by day, and pounds pavements as a security guard at night, in the process teaching them the value of money, and instilling a work ethic as strong as their serves. There are times when Mr. Williams seems like a South Central Mr. Miyagi, dispensing homespun wisdom concerning sportsmanship, giving media training so they are ready-made for the spotlight, and using Disney films to teach the girls about modesty and humility.
Richard isn’t all sweetness and light, however. He’s stubborn, has a temper, and carries a chip the size of a tennis racquet on his shoulder, attributes that drive his search for a coach early in proceedings, then again later when dealing with managers, agents, and sponsors who all want a piece of his girls.
The benefit of hindsight makes both sets of scenes hilarious, with the tennis establishment writing Richard off as either huckster or hustler, losing millions of dollars in the process. But racism also seems to be at work, and becomes a central theme of Zach Baylin’s script as Richard battles stigma and judgement on a daily basis.
There are times when this aspect of the screenplay is a little too on the nose, most notably when Rodney King is in the news, and a character states, “At least they got them on tape this time.” But it’s also a blast watching Venus and Serena infiltrate the white country clubs of Los Angeles, then destroy all-comers on their courts.
Baylin’s script isn’t afraid to question Williams’ motives either. There’s no doubt Richard projected his hopes and dreams onto the girls, but when he pulls them off the junior tournament circuit in favor of a less traditional path, one wonders if it’s to stop the duo from burning out – as happened to many tennis stars of the time – or because he’s worried the exposure will drive them away. The even-handed screenplay argues both sides, then lets the audience decide.
Yet while King Richard is two parts character study, the third part is sports movie, and on that front, it delivers. There are early glimpses of the tennis duo’s talent, but director Reinaldo Marcus Green wisely keeps his powder dry until he’s good and ready. Then the girls start hitting for real – just as Kris Bowers’ music pays homage to Jerry Goldsmith’s Rocky score – and the result is a moment of pure movie magic as their supreme skills are finally unleashed.
It helps that Saniyya Sidney (Venus) and Demi Singleton (Serena) can play as well as they act, the lack of cutaways making for truly exhilarating tennis. Both actresses light up the screen and make you believe in their bond as much as their talent, and they share entertaining scenes with coaches Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn, all tight shorts and business) and Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal, all moustache and inspiration).
But the film’s secret weapon is Aunjanue Ellis as Brandi, Richard’s loyal and ultimately long-suffering wife. In public Brandi stands by her man and supports her girls, and it’s nice to see someone who has largely been written out of history celebrated in such a way. But behind closed doors it’s a different story, and Ellis is outstanding in the scenes where Brandi is calling Richard out, for both his ego and his infidelity.
It’s the only mention of Richard being less committed to his family than the rest of the film suggests, while his personal business dealings are also briefly questioned, then just as quickly forgotten. That’s hardly surprising when Venus and Serena are producers on the project, but there’s a sense that we aren’t getting the full picture when it comes to the title character’s behaviour.
In spite of those shortcomings, Smith does his best to get inside Richard Williams’ head. It isn’t a subtle performance, with both his stoop and Louisiana drawl exaggerated, but there are times when it feels like he’s giving us the very essence of the man.
Smith captures the swagger and bravado when Richard is in salesman mode, but he’s even better when suggesting the fear that underpinned the patriarch’s actions; fear of being disrespected, fear of being made to look like a fool, and ultimately, fear of being wrong. It’s complex, nuanced stuff, giving us a sense of Richard’s inner turmoil, and going some way to explaining both his insecurity and unpredictability.
That all adds tension to a tale where superficially there is none. The world knows the Williams story, and because both girls were so successful so fast, the film is forced to find conflict off-court, in offices and hotel rooms, through meetings and negotiations. But just when it looks like King Richard will climax with a double fault rather than an ace, the filmmakers craft a tennis match that’s filled with suspense and surprises, combining action and emotion so this remarkable origin story ends with the grandstanding finish it deserves.