Even among an amazing ensemble of performances, Will Smith stuns as the titular patriarch of champions. Reinaldo Marcus Green crafts a fun and inspiring tennis ride, just don’t expect it to break new ground or transcend its genre.
King Richard is the story of one morally ambivalent father’s quest to cultivate real greatness. It details the adolescence of the Williams sisters Venus and Serena, two of the greatest athletes of all time. The film shows their meteoric rise from the rundown rainy tennis courts of Compton California, to top ranked professional matches and eventual superstardom.
I really appreciated the assured direction. One thing I really value in biopics like this, are directors who can convey the story without calling attention to themselves. None of these shots or angles will blow you away, but that is by design. The direction during the tennis matches did a great job conveying the stakes of each match, as well as framing the rules in a natural way. It kept me focused on the story and had me dialed in to these characters and performances, and what performances they were!
This is one of the best ensembles of the year. Aunjanue Ellis was so powerful in a limited role as the mother and her ferocious character served to highlight the morally gray areas that comprise King Richard. Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, who play Venus and Serena respectively, were perfectly cast as these generational stars because they themselves feel like prodigies well ahead of their time. Both were magnetic and commanded attention on screen. They were both able to bring intensity and innocence to the larger-than-life sisters and acted well beyond their years, even against an absolute juggernaut in Will Smith.
Smith’s performance is still the main draw of this film. Richard Williams is a truly unique and driven character and Smith plays him with such nuance and specificity. Everything from the way he walks to his manner of speaking felt authentically represented here. When it came time for him to really bring the emotion, it was impossible to look away. This is his best performance in years, maybe since Ali, and I think the Oscar is his to lose at this point.
Unfortunately, the acting was by far the highlight of King Richard. The story, while unique in its setting and focus, rarely broke from its “rags to riches” trappings. It was an engaging story and was very well executed, but the message felt fairly obvious and it never reached for more than the sum of its parts. There was also this inevitability to the Williams sisters’ success that I’m not sure how I felt about. It was as if Richard Williams would have carried ANY daughters to superstardom given his persistence and determination. I wish the film would’ve given the girls a bit more agency early on, so they felt more like drivers of their own success as opposed to passengers.
Regardless, this is a very compelling and well-made sports biopic. It has an ensemble of actors firing on all cylinders, it’s told from a unique subject’s point of view, and the direction carries you along without distracting from the story. A more balanced perspective with the daughters could have elevated this from good to great, but instead it hits a glass ceiling and ultimately feels less interesting than it had the potential to be.