Not quite the king of tennis movies
Venus and Serena Williams are two of the best tennis players of all time. Serena in particular, with her 23 grand-slam championships, is arguably one of the best players to ever grace a tennis court. Coupled with the fact that the Williams sisters are the first African Americans to win championships in the sport, there seems no better time than 2021 to release a biographical film about their achievements.
Racism and equality have been massive topics over the past few years and rightfully so. King Richard tackles both, but it does it at the same time as depicting the Williams’ success, from the perspective of their father, Richard Williams. This changed focus works pretty well, depicting how he shaped the girls into the winners they eventually become.
Like many other sport biopics, King Richard takes a very simple approach to the plot and there’s not much movement on the conventional mechanics at work here. You’ve got your rags-to-riches story, big breaks, set-backs, obstacles along the way and eventually a big match-up at the end. Regardless of sport, all these movies mostly follow the same trajectory.
At 2 hours and 20 minutes though, King Richard certainly takes its sweet ol’ time to progress through these moments. Thankfully, an excellent performance from Will Smith does help to elevate the material, with a screenplay that feels torn between highlighting racial prejudices and police corruption alongside an origin story for Venus and Serena Williams.
Before we dive into that though, the story takes place deep in the heart of Compton. Times are rough; the streets are full of kids in gangs or hooked up on drugs. In the middle of all this is are the Williams family, fronted by hardworking family man Richard. Father of five children, Richard has an entire plan laid out for Venus and Serena’s life, right down to the times they eat, sleep, practice and do schoolwork.
Richard though is no lay-about himself. When he’s not coaching the kids, he’s busy working the night shift, hustling for new tennis coaches to take a leap of faith in training his two girls for free. As you can imagine, not many want to take that gamble.
So naturally, Richard gets hustling, eventually getting his big break and seeing Venus’s career take off. Serena though, is left behind somewhat. It’s here where the movie starts to flake a little with its story. There are some really strange editorial choices here, including quite a few scenes of a road-trip that pad the run-time out, cutaway TV broadcasts about police brutality that go nowhere and several interviews involving Richard and Venus.
There’s also the subject of Serena herself, who’s all but forgotten about around the halfway point in favour of the spotlight shining on Venus. Without giving too much away, this is sort of explained near the end but given the emphasis on both girls early on, it seems an odd exclusion to just sideline her almost completely. The film actually seems to be building up a nice rivalry for the two, seeing the two sisters butt heads and stat to explore their relationship with one another, but it never pulls the trigger on that, which feels like a real missed opportunity.
While the story is quite formulaic, there are some nice inclusions here that deserve a mention. The music during the tennis matches – especially during the final tournament – is fantastic. Kris Bowers has done a great job composing this one and while most of the tracks just blend into the background as welcome ambient noise, these tennis matches are fantastic.
This is only complemented by a lot of smooth dolly movements across the court, getting up close to the action. This, mixed with TV camera shots that hang over the action, make for an enjoyable and engrossing watch.
Most of the cast do a great job bringing their respective characters to life, and as a massive fan of Jon Bernthal myself, he brings the character of Rick Macci to life with personality and charisma. He more than holds his own against Will Smith, who’s ultimately the star of the show.
Everything from the mannerisms, colloquial language and even the speech patterns are absolutely on the money, especially when the end credits show thee real Richard Williams talking. Will Smith’s depiction is pretty damn good.
While the movie tackles a fair amount of serious subject matter, and more than once leans into racism and prejudice in tennis which we’ve mentioned before, there are actually several well-placed jokes too. There’s an early dark bit of humour that comes completely unexpected, “Say hey to all those who gone,” Richard chirps enthusiastically, as the girls drive past a graveyard and wave to the tombstones.
Most of the time though, the humour hangs on wordplay and some clever quips and sarcastic retorts – most of which uttered by Richard himself. It works pretty well and with that trademark Will Smith charm, it makes Richard an endearing but ultimately conflicting character. Only, Smith’s performance is also this film’s biggest Achilles heel, believe it or not.
Because Will Smith is so charming and so good in his role, everything else around that just sort of falters into mediocrity. The Williams’ sisters never quite get the chance to shine, always standing in their father’s shadow, while the unimaginative screenplay lands this squarely in the middle of other sport biopics. There’s just not enough here for this to stand out.
Despite its lengthy run-time, by the end you almost feel like you’re ready for round 2. The film never tackles the Williams’ later career, nor does it do enough to let Serena share the spotlight with her sister. The film isn’t bad, and it’s certainly enjoyable, but it’s also not quite the Borg VS McEnroe classic that graced the big-screen in 2018.
King Richard releases in cinemas worldwide (and on HBO Max in the US) on 19th November!
Verdict - 6.5/10