By Sterling Pingree
With the news that a Pepsi commercial, featuring Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving was going to be developed into a full length feature film, I think most people were dubious that the product could turn out well. The commercials and the premise of Kyrie dressing in Eddie Murphy-like prosthetic make up and hustling “young bloods” down at the park was funny for a 60-second spot but for a 105 minute movie? Even I, the most ardent Celtic homer and lover of cheesy 90’s-improbable sports movies thought this might be a stretch. Friday night, I along with my Drive compatriots Aaron Jackson and Mark Paulette caught the late showing of Uncle Drew and this is the review.
Without giving away too many spoilers, which would be harder to do than you’d think because this film is pretty straight forward. Dax, played by comedian Lil Rel Howery, coaches a team in The Rucker street ball tournament. Somehow his nemesis, played by Nick Kroll (because of course Nick Kroll is the bad guy) steals his entire team (and Dax’s girlfriend because well, of course he does) less than a week before the tournament. So Dax has to find an entire new team because he’s spent all of his money paying the $5,000 entry fee. Dax goes on a mission to find a team and winds up with Uncle Drew and his “old” team from the first year of The Rucker. The story is simple, easy to follow and pleasingly predictable.
In Uncle Drew, you can always see what’s coming next, but in these small sets ups, it features what the movie is based on and that is insanely skilled basketball players posed as elderly people. What made this movie a success is the performance of the former players. Chris Webber as Preacher and Lisa Leslie as his wife Betty Lou are tremendous. Webber is almost unrecognizable with his hair, make up and posture, while Lisa Leslie looks exactly how I imagine Lisa Leslie will look in 30 years.
Reggie Miller plays a blind sharpshooter named “Lights” but it was Nate Robinson as the stoic “Boots” that might have stolen the movie for me. With his head tilt, wild afro and cardigan sweaters, Robinson made me laugh every time he was on screen and he barely moved or had dialogue.
As someone who counts Blue Chips as one of their three favorite movies of all time and has seen Kazaam, I wasn’t sure what we were going to get from Shaquille O’Neal in this movie. Playing a character known simply as “Big Fella”, I thought O’Neal was terrific. If this idea had been concocted during the times of say, The Nutty Professor, Shaq would no doubt have played Uncle Drew and this movie would have been rushed into production in about 1997.
The heart of the film is the name on the marquee, Kyrie Irving as Uncle Drew was better than expected. Kyrie in his first acting role was more than passable and did a great job as the movie’s main character. Uncle Drew was built up in the beginning of the movie as more of a myth than an actual ballplayer, but the character in the movie was much more of a man than myth. Drew’s long time feud with the Big Fella added depth to the story and the character. I’m not sure if there is a sequel in the cards for Uncle Drew, but I don’t think this will be the last time we will see Kyrie Irving on the silver screen.
The only drawback to the movie was the co-lead in the movie, Dax who was played by comedian Lil Rel Howery. Watching this movie, you can’t help but think that the role of Dax was written for Kevin Hart. The dialogue sounded very much like things Kevin Hart has said at All-Star weekend and even some of Howery’s mannerisms seemed somewhat Hart-ish. Howery did fine, but the comparison hurts his performance because this movie gets pushed to another level with Hart as the co-lead. My working theory as to why Hart isn’t in the movie (besides probably the obvious answer, money) is that Hart already has a movie coming out this summer with Tiffany Haddish who plays Dax’s girlfriend in Uncle Drew.
My final score out of 5 stars for Uncle Drew is a 3 ¾ stars. That score exceeded my tempered expectations because I wanted to like this movie going in, but knowing how easy it is to screw up a film like this, I remained guarded. For a fan of the NBA, whose love started in the 90’s, this movie is right in the wheelhouse. Aaron Jackson and I share a love of that era and Uncle Drew feels like it was made for people who had a subscription to Sports Illustrated for Kids in 1996.
I don’t want to give away the best line of the movie, but as the teams are coming out of time out before the climax of the big game, Uncle Drew’s line to Preacher was 100% pure gold.
Sterling Pingree (@SterlingPingree on Twitter) is a co-host on The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.