review by Bobby Blakey
I am a massive fan of John Leguizamo who is not only a great actor and easily one of best storytellers in the business. (Check out his brilliant special Latin History For Morons currently on Netflix) He continues to take on a diverse variety of roles from The Pest (which I love) to John Wick to Playing With Fire and so many more. For his latest film Critical Thinking he is taking on dual duties in front and behind the camera starring and directing alongside a fresh young cast including Corwin C. Tuggles, Jorege Lendeborg Jr., Angel Bismark Curiel, Will Hochman, Jefferey Batista, and Michael Kenneth Williams. Could this film bring the inspiration the real story offered up or will it be to many moves behind to succeed?
Critical Thinking follows the true story of the 1998 Miami Jackson Senior High School chess team that defied the odds and overcame incredible adversity to become the first urban high school to win the U.S. Chess National Championship. I love films like this that are not only based on true events, but inspire young people to be more through something that seems unconventional. Chess is considered the gentlemen’s game but a game nonetheless, but those that fully grasp and can work it through the mind so many moves ahead showcase a type of intelligence all its own.
On the surface this story seems like it’s going to be another generic kids on the wrong side of the tracks rising up and while that is there its so much more. Those elements are just the facts of their environment, but not who they are. Leguizamo’s turn as the teacher Mario Martinez is more than just a chess teacher he is a mentor looking to show these young men that they are more than their race or environment. There are some clichéd stuff here but its their stories and needed to really push the narrative of their journey forward.
There are some elements that felt missed to me with some unresolved story lines, but at the same time I think it was purposeful to keep it focused on the chess journey. I felt that some of it was just to remind you of what they were dealing with while still accomplishing something so big for their school and
themselves as opposed to try and rope us in to their drama filled backstories. Sure I would have loved to see them play out but that is not what the focus is here and it still works.
There is one moment early in the film that was heartbreaking and shocking that I never saw coming and I am glad. It’s whole purpose is to keep the audience grounded to their reality and what they are fighting to get out of to be better men. The entire cast was great with each of them bringing something special to their layered roles and Leguizamo knocking it out of the park in both performance and direction.
A chess movies isn’t an overly exciting idea, but the scenes were engaging and the story is one that deserved to be told. I applaud Leguizamo for bringing this film to life and the spotlight on a film of color without being about people of color, and instead just about people. Every project he appears in makes me eager for more and cannot wait to see what he pushes towards in the future.
Check out Critical Thinking available now On Demand and digital from Vertical Entertainment.