Movie Review: Leguizamo coaches Miami chess prodigies in “Critical Thinking”

“Critical Thinking” is a cluttered, cliched and ungainly story about disadvantaged kids becoming a formidable chess team under the tutelage of a teacher/coach who “won’t give up on them.”

It’s the feature directing debut of star John Leguizamo, who plays that “cool” teacher at Miami’s Jackson High, and tries with limited success to wrestle a Dito Montiel (“The Clapper”) script into a smooth flowing film. “Critical” has many characters, too many character “types,” melodrama by the bucketful and too little that breaks from the “Big Game” sports movie formula.

Punch up the class discrimination and racial inequality messaging, with the history of chess illustrative of the whitewashing of history — “How come they always paint us out?” — and you’ve got a movie with plenty of good intentions, lots of speed chess, and so many elements it can’t get out of its own way.

Thankfully, we jump right into the fray. Top dog player Sedrick (Corwin C. Tuggles) finishes off an argument with his dad (Michael Kenneth Williams) with a chess match before heading off to his favorite elective class — chess.

Mario Martinez (Leguizamo), “Mister T” to the kids, starts another semester of chess, going over the basics for “the fish” (new kids), batting down banter and personality conflicts among his stars, the four guys who comprise his team.

Sedrick is stoic and steady. Rodelay (Angel Bismark Curiel) is the cocksure braggart. Ito (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) is the hothead and bully with a drug dealing future seemingly laid out for him. But they won’t be competitive unless Sedrick can lure white boy Gil (Will Hochman) away from the video games and back to class.

To do that, Sedrick — who once took great offense at having his new sneakers stepped on — has to find Gil and apologize.

It’s mostly a man’s world, with the girls in the class taking a timid back seat as Mister T goes into “The Philidor Defense,” “The Opera Game,” the career of Jose Raul Capablanca and finer points of “The Scandinavian Defense.”

The usual obstacles are trotted out — lack of funding from the district, an understanding but hands-tied principal (Rachel Bay Jones), the threatening lure of a gang, the guy with a girlfriend, the working class dad who flips out over the money this ISN’T bringing into the house, the dead mother, the cops watching one player in particular.

“We’ll be the guys with the mirrored shades on.”

A shocking death rattles the first act, prompting the teacher to poetry. “You guys know about Pablo Neruda?”

“You mean from ‘Family Matters?'”

The boys come together as a team, getting even better when a fresh-off-the-boat Cuban prodigy (Jeffry Batista) comes on board. Road trips, fund raising activities to pay for the tourneys, contests where sportsmanship doesn’t figure into Mister T’s teaching. Bullying and trash talk are just who they are, it is implied.

I wasn’t shocked on learning, after the fact, that Montiel scripted this. The narrative is shambolic, with blasts of violence and random “feels” tossed in with the high school (pot-seasoned cookies) hijinx and long long scenes of chess being played, with precious few shots of what’s actually going on at each board.

Filmmakers fall for the temptation of pounded game clocks, glowers and flurries of speed-chess moves in an effort to animate what can be a dramatic but rarely cinematic game. Leguizamo takes that bait, too.

The performers never transcend the archetypes they’re stuck playing, and that goes for “Johnny Legs” as Mister T, as well. He’s a magnetic performer, but this guy is a photocopy in cardboard.

I like the messaging and films of this genre have their built-in “against all odds” allure. But “Critical Thinking” needed a vigorous edit before it went before the cameras, needed to figure out who we are meant to follow and identify with and probably needed some sense of remove from the “true story.” Because giving every character almost equal screen time out of obligation, when the movie’s going to be fictionalized, no matter what, makes for a maddeningly unfocused and unsatisfying movie.

MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, drug trade content, profanity

Cast: John Leguizamo, Corwin C. Tuggles, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Jeffry Batista, Angel Bismark Curiel, Will Hochman, Rachel Bay Jones and Michael Kenneth Williams.

Credits: Directed by John Leguizamo, script by Dito Montiel. A Vertical release.

Running time: 1:57

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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