A superficial and predictable sports drama with an inner-city background, ABOVE THE RIM nevertheless offers engaging characters, fast-paced direction, and strong performances by several young African-American actors.
Kyle (Duane Martin), a basketball star at a Harlem high school, plans to play in a neighborhood tournament, the Uptown Shootout, on a team fielded by his school coach, Mike Rollins (David Bailey). But after Kyle receives a tongue-lashing from Rollins, he defects to a squad sponsored by Birdie
(Tupac Shakur), a drug dealer who buys his loyalty with gifts.
The school's new security guard, Shep (Leon), is recognized by local derelict Flip (Bernie Mac) as a neighborhood basketball legend who had disappeared years before. (Shep is also Birdie's older brother, but the two are bitterly estranged.) When Shep begins seeing Kyle's single mother, Mailika
(Tonya Pinkins), a resentful Kyle takes up with local hoodlums Moe (Byron Minns) and Bug (Marlon Wayans). One night, Kyle spies a lone Shep practicing basketball maneuvers; curious, he pumps Flip for information, but is interrupted by the arrival of Birdie and Moe. When Flip tells Kyle that Birdie
and Shep are brothers, Birdie is furious.
During a crucial game at school, Kyle is distracted by the sight of Shep and Mailika together. He gets rough with an opposing player and is expelled from the game. Afterwards, he angrily warns Shep to stay away from his mom. At a meeting of his team, the Birdmen, Birdie viciously humiliates Bug
and orders him to leave. Shocked, Kyle follows Bug and learns that Birdie has attacked Flip with a razor. Kyle then encounters Shep, who informs him that Flip has died. Shep challenges Kyle to a one-on-one game and wins handily; thereafter, he prepares to leave town.
Kyle rejoins Rollins's team, the Bombers, for the climactic Uptown Shootout. During the brutal finals against the Birdmen, Shep steps in to replace an injured Bomber and rallies to win the game. Moe, the Birdmen's star player, then pulls a gun on Kyle. Shep is shot in the chest while
intervening; Moe is killed by a plainclothes cop. In an extended epilogue, Bug kills Birdie, who had threatened to inform the NCAA about the gifts he'd given Kyle. At the close, Mailika, Rollins, and a recovered Shep watch on TV as Kyle leads the Georgetown University team to victory.
Reminiscent of Warner Bros.' urban dramas of a half-century ago (e.g. KID GALAHAD, CITY FOR CONQUEST), ABOVE THE RIM offers such stock elements as a young aspiring athlete, a local gangster looking to get a piece of the kid, a faded star seeking to redeem himself, and the hero's virtuous single
mom (replacing the girl next door in the earlier films). This otherwise formulaic effort is distinguished by authentic and energetic performances by several young actors, especially Martin, rap star Shakur (JUICE), and Marlon Wayans (MO' MONEY). Comedian Bernie Mac (HOUSE PARTY III) offers a
poignant turn as Flip, the homeless man who recalls Shep's glory days. Leon (COOL RUNNINGS), as Shep, lacks the emotional range needed to flesh out his complex character, but he looks the part and displays the indisputable basketball skills required for it.
The sharp dialogue by Barry Michael Cooper (NEW JACK CITY) and director Jeff Pollack is full of bite, plausible streetside taunts, and a keen awareness of the nuances of urban moral codes. But the conventions of latterday urban melodrama--already a firmly established Hollywood subgenre in the
wake of, inter alia, BOYZ N THE HOOD, JUICE, and MENACE II SOCIETY--demand greater emotional depth than this film supplies. Just for example, the pain felt by Birdie as a result of Shep's desertion, a conventional "explanation" for Birdie's waywardness, is alluded to but never really portrayed;
consequently, Birdie's foul deeds are insufficiently motivated. Moreover, the movie's melodramatic take on its subject matter seems especially inadequate in light of HOOP DREAMS, a nuanced and clear-sighted documentary about inner-city basketball players that was also released in 1994. By
comparison, many of ABOVE THE RIM's narrative strategies--e.g., its cruelly unrealistic suggestion that ghetto kids can hope for redemption through major-college sports programs--feel particularly cheap and exploitative. (Extreme profanity, violence.
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