'Above the Rim' revisits a grim inner-city nightmare and the dream of getting out

March 23, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Staff Writer

There's a scene in "Above the Rim" when two of the characters walk out of a Harlem movie theater that's showing a "Shaft" film festival. It's a clever, self-conscious touch in a shrewdly judged movie. For while "Above the Rim" is purportedly about basketball as an escape route for young black men out of the slums, it's one of a recent number of movies that have succeeded the "Shaft" films (and others of their ilk) as blaxploitation pics.

With films such as "New Jack City" and "Sugar Hill," "Above the Rim" shares a screenwriter (Baltimore resident Barry Michael Cooper) and an extraordinary interest in the glamour of violence, sex (whose easy availability is only implicit in this film) and foul language (which is so explicit and frequent that one begins to count the various ways in which certain profanities can be inflected).

"Above the Rim" may be about inner-city life, but it's a pastoral. Pastorals are not really about the country. Even in the first Greek and Latin forms of the genre, the shepherds and shepherdesses who peopled them represented a golden world into which one wishes to escape urban anxieties.

To Kyle (Duane Martin), the hot-dog high school player who wants to play for Georgetown and then make it to the NBA, basketball frees him from the restraints of his impoverished neighborhood. Kyle is also an Everyman whose soul is a battleground between two forces.

One is Birdie (Tupac Shakur), a violent but seductive drug lord, who promises to help Kyle realize his dreams but would really transform them into nightmare.

The other is the suggestively named Shepherd (Leon), a former high school basketball star whose mysterious, troubled past, tight-lipped manner and extraordinary basketball skills turn him into a Shane figure seeking redemption from his past.

"Above the Rim" is an urban Western (Westerns, too, are forms of pastoral) in which gangsta rap has replaced the Elmer Bernstein soundtrack and the slam dunk the six-shooter.

Not that there isn't plenty of gunplay in "Above the Rim."

While the famous pickup basketball tournament at Rucker's playground forms the climax of the film, handguns (semi-automatics, not six-shooters) play an important part in getting rid of the story's untied ends.

This is director Jeff Pollack's first feature film and he makes it move at a respectably fast clip, creating basketball sequences that show an aficionado's enthusiasm. One of the best things here is the cinematography of Tom Priestly Jr., who gives the film a look that is at once grittily realistic and, particularly in the dream sequence that opens the film and supplies the key to Shepherd's past, eerily beautiful.


Title: "Above the Rim"

Stars: Duane Martin, Leon and Tupac Shakur

Director: Jeff Pollack

Studio: New Line Cinema

Rating: R

** 1/2

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