'Sixth Man' bounces with ghostly fun Movie review: With moments that'll have you thinking 'flubber,' a hard-working basketball team pulls some fast moves on its way to the NCAA championships.

March 28, 1997|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

On the weekend of the last spin of the Big Dance, as those witty sports writers so cleverly call it, here's an enjoyable little jitterbug that's not nearly as impressive as a waltz or a minuet, but has the lightness of a tap dance and the sparkling flash of a do-si-do at a --

Yeah, all right.

Anyhow, "The Sixth Man" is a mild romp at the expense of college basketball and the NCAA tournament; it hasn't a surprise anywhere in its feeble grasp, but amuses on the strength of its antic performances, its surprisingly accurate sense of milieu (Dick Vitale, John Thompson, Bill Walton and various crowds appear briefly as themselves), and enough computer-generated slapstick to keep things lively.

There's not a lot of plot. TV stars Kadeem Hardison and Marlon Wayans are the brothers Tyler, Antoine and Kenny; they're also big-time Huskies (University of Washington style). Hardison's Antoine is the dominating scoring machine inside and Wayans' Kenny the fly-quick guard who sets him up.

But as the team is closing on its first NCAA bid in years, tragedy strikes: Antoine -- it happens often enough to be frighteningly believable on screen -- suffers a heart attack. He's gone, and the team limps onward, its spirit shattered.

Isn't this supposed to be a comedy? I'm thinking. Well, it is: Out of some mumbo-jumbo the movie can't really explain, Antoine returns as a ghost to help his brother, and as the Ethereal Sky-Jammin' Thunder-Crunching sixth man of the Huskies, he's able to help them out of their depression and into the Final Four.

A good deal of the fun here recalls the giddy, silly pleasures of early live-action Disney films, like Fred MacMurray's "The Absent-Minded Professor," where flubber turned all nerds into All-Stars and elevated every weenie to the Jordan level of gravity-defying aerobatics.

In "The Sixth Man," when desperate passes become full-court swishes and hang-time must be measured in minutes, I defy anyone with a verifiable EKG reading not to laugh. And the computers make incredible effects possible, as one where Antoine literally becomes the ball and instructs an enemy shooter to get his finger out of his eye.

Less successful is the gambit where Kenny, who can see, feel, fight, argue and romp with Antoine, is seen by others, who can't. This is old, old stuff, as the point of views flick back and forth, and not nearly as funny as the basketball shenanigans.

Nothing much new happens, except that at the end, for the big game, the players reassert the integrity of honest competition. Wayans and Hardison have terrific comic energy together, with fabulous timing; David Paymer has a nice turn as a compassionate coach.

But what's best about "The Sixth Man" is its wondrous sense of inclusion: Everybody, black and white, man and woman, gets in on the fun.

'The Sixth Man'

Starring Kadeem Hardison and Marlon Wayans

Directed by Randall Miller

Released by Touchstone

Rated PG-13

Sun score ** 1/2

Pub Date: 3/28/97

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