As a rule, sports movies almost never surprise their audiences. Much like rom-coms or big-budget action flicks, there are certain expected beats. The small team challenges the goliath. A character cracks wise. The underdog becomes proficient. And somewhere between the training montage and some sort of unexpected setback, you have the moment where the protagonist discovers the holiest of holy sports movie clichés—belief in himself.
Of course, there are exceptions. Rocky, Friday Night Lights, North Dallas Forty – movies where the story and the stakes are real, something that audiences can care about outside of the actual sports action happening on the screen. And let’s be honest: the realism of the sports action does matter.
Nobody believes Ed Norton is dunking a basketball in American History X.
But when a sports movie really hits, it hits because it’s a good movie first and a good sports movie second. It hits because the connection goes beyond a bat and a ball. It’s about father and mothers, sons and daughters, lifelong friends and teammates. At its core, sports are about stories and drama. So when a filmmaker is able to tap into all of that, there is an opportunity for greatness.
Sadly, Uncle Drew is not great. It’s not even good. And that pains me.
Unlike boxing and baseball movies, both of which seem to always find box office success, perhaps because they mimic two of our country’s favorite pastimes – violence and nostalgia – there are rarely good basketball movies. He Got Game, White Men Can’t Jump, and Hoosiers, even though it grows sketchier and sketchier as the years go by, are among the rare few. From there it gets dire. Eddie. Like Mike. Thunderstruck. Don’t even talk to me about Space Jam.
So I wanted Uncle Drew to be good. I wanted it to be more than a gimmick, more than an extended version of the Pepsi commercials that – let’s be honest – were pretty brilliant and probably did deserve a crack at a feature. But unlike the commercial, where Kyrie Irving (Uncle Drew) dons prosthetics and makeup and heads out to the court to school some “young bloods,” the gimmick isn’t enough to carry an entire movie. No matter how shockingly good those NBA players are, not only as players, but also as actors.
And they are good actors.
Chris Webber (Preacher), going full-on Coming to America with his over-the-top-but-still-amazing character work. Reggie Miller as Lights, a blind (seriously) 3-point shooter and Shaquille O’Neal, a towering karate instructor, both bring their larger than life personalities to the screen and it works. Nate Robinson (Boots) barely talks, but by the end of the movie is the heart of the story. And finally, Lisa Leslie as Betty Lou is simultaneously scary and hilarious.
Perhaps, if you could go back and cut this movie up and release it as a series of shorts, highlighting Uncle Drew and these individual characters, it might achieve the same sort of magic the original commercials captured.
Instead, the story centers around Dax (Lil Rel Howery), who is close to achieving his life-long goal of finding success on the court. Howery (Get Out) is the actual protagonist of the movie, and he shines even when faced with the impossible task of sharing the screen with literal giants. As a burgeoning coach, he’s trying to create a team for the Rucker Classic, a famous street ball tournament at Rucker Park in New York City. As you’d expect, Dax’s team gets stolen out from under him by his nemesis (since middle school!), Mookie, played by Nick Kroll. In the course of the movie, Dax loses his girlfriend (the brilliant Tiffany Haddish), meets a new one (Erica Ash), and realizes that he’s had a family all along in Uncle Drew’s geriatric squad because, oh yeah, he’s also an orphan.
It feels wrong to dunk on a movie that is already getting dunked on so hard by its own script and story, but the entire experience is exhausting. And like an athlete who has all the physical gifts, but lacks the drive to utilize them, Uncle Drew is missing perhaps the most important quality both an athlete and a movie needs to be successful—heart.