On a basketball courtroom, “give me the rock” means “cross the ball.” In “Excessive Flying Chook,” an exhilarating and argumentative caper regarding a sports activities agent, his N.B.A.-rookie consumer and different events, the phrase takes on a barely completely different connotation — one thing akin to “the employees ought to seize management of the technique of manufacturing.”
However the presence of three real-life skilled ballers (Reggie Jackson, Karl-Anthony Cities and Donovan Mitchell) giving straight-to-camera testimony about life within the league, this isn’t a sports activities film in any typical sense. Directed by Steven Soderbergh from a screenplay by Tarell Alvin McCraney, it makes use of the charisma of athletes and the aggressive power of the sport they play to catalyze a feisty, twisty fable of labor and capital within the 21st century.
McCraney, a formidable playwright (his “Choir Boy” is at the moment on Broadway) and an Oscar winner for “Moonlight,” has composed a densely layered, intellectually demanding agitprop drama that attracts on rabble-rousing theatrical traditions (Clifford Odets, Dario Fo) whereas fixing its gaze squarely on the injustices and absurdities of the current. Soderbergh, taking pictures virtually totally with an iPhone, conducts a brisk tour of the streets and suites of money-mad Manhattan, with excursions to Philadelphia and the South Bronx.
It’s very a lot value digging into the political financial system of the film, however extra necessary, on the outset, is to pay tribute to its craft and ingenuity. McCraney’s script is sort of merely a rare piece of writing, idiomatic and poetic in its cadences and pleasingly serpentine in its construction. The problem for Soderbergh and the more-than-game forged is to show the suave verbiage into persuasive human speech and the plot equipment right into a believable slice of natural actuality. Which it’s, serving to down the medication of topicality with the sugar of pop-culture cleverness in essentially the most pleasant means.
The marginally distended frames and peculiar angles of the pocket-size digital camera — and the best way Soderbergh, serving because the director of pictures below his normal pseudonym, Peter Andrews, makes it twirl, glide and shimmy — create an environment of buoyancy and immediacy. The actors take it from there, above all André Holland, an government producer of the movie and the third member of its central artistic staff.
Holland (an important a part of each “Moonlight” and “The Knick,” Soderbergh’s Cinemax collection) performs Ray Burke, an agent who finds himself in a decent skilled and moral spot. The staff house owners have locked out the gamers (as happened in the N.B.A. back in 2011), and the cash that retains all people afloat is shortly drying up.
Within the first scene, Ray is lecturing his consumer Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), a latest No. 1 draft choose whose skilled debut has been postponed, about monetary accountability and private self-discipline. It’s a big-brotherly scolding and a pep discuss, but additionally the beginnings of a ruthless critique of the best way the system works, exploiting naïve and bold younger males like Erick even because it guarantees them fame and fortune.
That concept — that regardless of excessive salaries and endorsement offers, athletes are essentially employees, producing earnings for the proudly owning class — is refined and sophisticated as Ray pinballs from one assembly to the following. He checks in on the workplace along with his boss (Zachary Quinto), engages in energetic screwball banter along with his erstwhile assistant, Samantha (Zazie Beetz) and argues dialectics and family-leave coverage with Myra (Sonja Sohn), the top of the participant’s affiliation.
Different encounters — with a no-nonsense sports activities mother (Jeryl Prescott), the proprietor of Erick’s staff (Kyle MacLachlan) and Ray’s previous pal Spence (Invoice Duke), who runs a youth basketball program — comply with the identical didactic, disputatious sample. There’s a good quantity of soliloquizing and rhetorical grandstanding, which can also be true of Shakespeare, hip-hop and church. In the event you like several of these, you may get pleasure from this too.
In the middle of all of the back-and-forthing, a scheme emerges that strikes Ray as splendidly easy and doubtlessly revolutionary. What if the gamers, paralyzed by the intransigence of their employers, might remove these middlemen and take management of the fruits of their very own abilities? It’s a query that resonates past the courtroom, the locker room and the published sales space, into the worlds of artwork and leisure. The racial facets of the facility dynamic that governs organized sports activities is so apparent that it virtually goes with out saying. At any time when anybody does say it — when, that’s, any individual invokes slavery as a metaphor for present circumstances — Spence calls for the recitation of a brief prayer: “I like the lord and all his black individuals.” If there may be resignation in these phrases, there may be defiance too.
“Excessive Flying Chook” swoops and cuts via the contradictions of recent tradition with the fleet momentum of an influence ahead destroying a flat-footed protection on his technique to the ring. You don’t fairly perceive what simply occurred till the following factor is already occurring. The mental virtuosity on show is someway each ostentatious and informal. The performances — Holland’s particularly, filled with unhappiness, guile and audacity — really feel the identical means.
Not every little thing works. A again story having to do with Ray’s cousin, a basketball prodigy who met a tragic finish, feels just like the type of baggage extra suited to the stage than the display. At moments the busyness of the plot overshadows the wit of the performances. However the occasional raggedness of the film solely enhances the credibility of its ambitions. Like Ray Burke, it’s in an enormous hurry and has lots on its thoughts.
And it leaves you with lots to consider, along with race, class and basketball: what it means to like your work, and why it issues to be paid for it; how utopian visions and tactical calculations work collectively to create the opportunity of change; why we take enjoyable so significantly. It ends not with an enormous recreation or a high-stakes showdown however with a protest anthem — by Richie Havens, who additionally wrote the tune that gives the film its name — and a advice for additional studying. Which I’m not about to spoil.