Kyle (Duane Martin) is a high school basketball phenom in Harlem who wants to be a college whiz and an NBA all-star. Irked that the big college recruiters have yet to sign him, he showboats on the court in the closing games of his final season. It's bad teamwork but great to watch: Kyle is totally fulfilled as he soars through the air.
"Above the Rim" would have been better had it stuck with Kyle's love for the game and depended less on a mess of tired melodrama about his involvement with a brutal drug dealer, Birdie (Tupac Shakur), and his estranged brother Shep (Leon), who had been a great neighborhood basketball star before he skipped town. It's not that this material is inappropriate to Kyle's story; it's just that it never comes to life in the way the basketball scenes do. That's the problem with sports movies: If the ball-playing footage is any good, the rest of the action tends to look like filler.
Director Jeff Pollack, who co-created NBC's "Fresh Prince of Bel Air," shoots the basketball scenes with vigor and understanding. (Some sports movies look as if they were directed by couch potatoes.) But he isn't aided by Barry Michael Cooper's script, which has Kyle rebounding among confrontations with his mother (Tonya Pinkins), his coach (David Bailey), Shep, Birdie and just about everybody else. He's supposed to be an Angry Young Man pulled between crime and ethics, but he doesn't seem to be all that angry. His fights have a trumped-up-for-high-drama feeling.
The film is much better when it drops the arch theatrics and just moves along to the great rap soundtrack. The hang-loose scenes between Kyle and his dotty friend Bugaloo (Marlon Wayans) are the best not only because they seem the most realistic but also because they don't make a big fuss about how socially conscious they are.
They make you want to shoot a few hoops.
\o7 * MPAA rating: R, for strong language and violence. Times guidelines: It includes much cussing and graphic violence.
'Above the Rim'
Duane Martin: Kyle
Tupac Shakur: Birdie
David Bailey: Rollins
A New Line presentation. Director Jeff Pollack. Producers Jeff Pollack and Benny Medina. Executive producer James D. Brubacker. Screenplay by Barry Michael Cooper and Jeff Pollack. Cinematographer Tom Priestley Jr. Editors Michael Ripps and James Mitchell. Costumes Karen Perry. Music Marcus Miller. Production design Ina Mayhew. Set decorator Paul Weathered. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.